Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins sermon - Yom Kippur 5779
Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins sermon - Yom Kippur 5779
The people of the book love a good story. Perhaps some of us remember the one about the Emperor’s new clothes, not from our tradition, but it’s still a good yarn. Hans Christian Anderson's tale involves a vain king preoccupied with his appearance and his wardrobe. A pair of swindlers take advantage of this by pretending to be able to weave the finest cloth, which couldn't be seen by people who were either unfit for office or were particularly stupid. The king decides to have a suit of clothes made from the fabric in order to test which of his courtiers was unfit for office. As he does not want to appear stupid or unfit for rule himself, the king pretends to be able to see the new clothes, as do all of his courtiers. He parades the 'new clothes' through the streets and the onlookers, also not wishing to appear stupid, all admire them. A small child, who doesn’t understand the apparent necessity for pretence, pipes up 'The Emperor has no clothes!' The bubble of pretence bursts and soon all the onlookers repeat what the child has said, whilst the king continues the procession, attempting to maintain his dignity by pretending that nothing had happened.
Since then the phrase “the Emperor’s new clothes” has become a standard metaphor for anything that smacks of pretentiousness, pomposity, social hypocrisy, collective denial or any fictional item that people have been induced into believing as real. Now there is nothing wrong with make believe – in reality the world in which we believe is the world we make. In fact our story telling capacity is what makes our species unique. In his book of popular science, Sapiens, Dr Yuval Noah Harari of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, writes, “This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.” Moreover, “fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively…. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers.” (Sapiens p. 27). The stories that we tell, the meanings we derive from them, construct the world in which inhabit. It does not matter one whit that the stories we tell are make believe. What matters is that we take responsibility for the stories we tell, for the world in which we live derives from that which we believe. What matters is the stories we tell and why we tell them.
The “Emperor’s new clothes” reminds us that we have told certain stories for thousands of years that we pretend are not make believe, and then we give them the status of “absolute truth” because they are in a book that we call the Koran, or the Christian Bible, and even in our Torah. The insistence that Scripture has been given literally by God is a classic – and dangerous – case of “The Emperors New Clothes”, simply because it has us rely on stories woven by ancestors in their time to determine how we should live in our lives now. These are stories that we say are factually true because of when and where they were written; they are fictional items that people have been induced into believing as real. This is a classic act of collective denial.
Now there are some things in this world that are factually true whether we believe them or not – those are the objective realities of the natural world of which we are all part. You may not believe in gravity, yet it holds you in place right now. You may not believe in radioactivity, but overexposure to it will kill you. One of the most important lessons for humans to learn is the way that science – physics, chemistry and biology – establishes the parameters for the universe in which we exist. It is essential if we are truly to be homo sapiens, the wise humans, we understand the difference between facts based in evidence and the fictions we tell. How we shape our world will be a product of our imagination, of our make believe.
We believe the world was created in seven days, and then make the most wonderful day of its celebration – the week, culminating with the Shabbat, a time to stop and refrain from work, a time to enjoy family, friends, nature, food, rest and love.
We believe that God stands in judgement over us determining who shall live and who shall die, and we make these amazing ten days in which we reflect on the meaning of our lives and our relationships, doing our best to bring healing in our world.
Unfortunately, because of our beliefs, we have also made a world that needs so much healing, of extreme cruelty for different members of society, for different people on earth, for different animals than us.
We believed that sex between two men was unnatural and an affront to God, a toevah, and we made a world in homosexuals have been persecuted, beaten, murdered and executed. Then we realised that these men were our brothers, our children, our friends and our colleagues. The world we imagined had begun to shift, and now in this last year, same sex marriages have been validated by our society and polity, and we have been fortunate to officiate at the this synagogue Australia’s first same sex religious marriages under the legislation. Our cultures are our creations, our stories, our responsibilities.
We believed that certain people are in God’s favour and others are not, because of their gender, the colour their skin, their beliefs and we made a fear based world that has dire consequences for those out of favour – whether warred against, enslaved or simply discriminated against. We know how we Jews have suffered as a people for thousands of years because of these kinds of beliefs, and we continue to do so. The First Nations of this land suffered because of those kinds of beliefs. Sadly, there are Palestinians who suffer from that minority of Jews who believe God has given us the land and others should not have equal rights there. But it’s all just a story, and it’s up to us how to tell it and live it.
We believed that we are the only sentient animals in existence – since the story of Noah we have said in the name of God that the fear and dread of us shall be upon all the animals. We made a world in which most mammals larger than us are now extinct, and billions of others domesticated by us for our use. We now understand the sentient nature of all animals, the fact that they have physical and emotional needs as well, and our beliefs must change. The story of supremacy over the other animals needs to be told as descriptive, not prescriptive, or we will continue to be responsible for the extraordinary suffering of animals whose lives are created and extinguished not for our dietary needs but for pleasure.
What parts of our story will we choose to tell, and how will we choose to tell them? We say in our prayers, “Grant us wisdom, knowledge and discernment.” Our tradition encourages us to use wisdom and knowledge to discern how to tell our stories. I suggest we follow the tradition that has prioritised the teaching of the Shema for the telling of our story, for our construct of how to form our world. The Shema is the central piece of Torah in our prayers and in our mezuzot, the words we are meant to recite at birth and death and every day in between, the words with which we close Yom Kippur. It sets the parameter for our life construct. The Shema teaches that that which we call God can be understood as the universal consciousness and greatest mystery in life. That faith perspective that all existence is one means all life is interconnected, each of us a conscious spark. It suggests that the best way forward in this interdependent world is with an orientation of love. This cannot be proved or disproved in the world of science - what better make believe could there be?
These ten days of awe and repentance reinforce that loving orientation. We call them the ten days of awe hoping to reawaken to the awe and mystery of life to which we become deadened in our daily routines. On this tenth day, this Yom Kippur, we make believe that we come closer to death and understand thereby the significance of life. Knowing we will die, we say what makes life worth living are the practices of deep introspection, selfless giving and interpersonal transformation. We pray for life, compassion, forgiveness, blessing and peace. With belief in these values, what world can we make?
Let’s make believe we can respond with heartfelt compassion to the First Nations’ “Uluru Statement of the Heart” which stated among other things, “These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness. We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.”
Let’s make believe we hear the incongruity between these two statements made by the same leader of government: “It’s essential that people realise that the hard-won success of the last few years could be undone overnight by a single act of compassion in bringing 20 people from Manus to Australia” and “as a discretionary and humanitarian act to an individual with ongoing needs, it is in the interests of Australia as a humane and generous society to grant this person a tourist visa.”
Let’s make believe we respond to the stories of those voiceless animals, to their cries of pain and suffering. Let us work to eliminate industrial production of animals and phase out live sheep export, which in the words of John Hewson, is a practice of “systematic failure, negligence, abuse and neglect…an example of losing our moral compass.”
Let us make believe that it is not known who shall live and who shall die, and let’s make believe that this year is our last chance to get it right. Even so, is this enough? The challenge in front of us is that as Harari writes, “Even if I succeed in freeing my personal desires from the grip of the imagined order, I am just one person. In order to change the imagined order I must convince millions of strangers to cooperate with me. For the imagined order is not a subjective order existing in my own imagination – it is rather an inter-subjective order, existing in the shared imagination of thousands and millions of people.” (Sapiens, p. 131) Yet as we thousand gather here this Yom Kippur, so do millions of Jews around the world. We say all our prayers in the plural, understanding this inter-subjectivity of our life as Jews. And as Jews have influenced so much of the world as its teachings percolated into Christianity and Islam, so too can it happen in our time. Certainly, we can make believe this is possible, for this is to live with the faith perspective at the heart of the stories we have told for hundreds of generations and thousands of years.
At the climax of these ten days of awe and repentance, let us redress the error of our ways and take responsibility for the stories we tell. Let us believe in the world we wish to make –a world not just for “us,” but also for “all of us,” where “the all” includes the sentient beings with whom we share our planet. We humans weave our fictions, so as this day exhorts us, let us fashion a world based in forgiveness, compassion and love. Make believe.