5777 Kol Nidrei Sermon – REACHING THROUGH ANGER

Yehudah Amichai, Israel’s great modern poet, wrote this…

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.

But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plow
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.

Have you ever stood in that place — in the place where you are unwaveringly right?  Have you ever dug your heels into the hard earth where the other person is wrong, where someone else is on the pointed end of your blame and your anger?  Have you ever spent months, or even years, stomping that same terrain, nursing your hurt and the justification for staying angry, staying distant, making sure the other person knows they are not forgiven?  Or perhaps you’re practiced at directing anger at yourself, trampling the field of your own heart with shame and derision.  It is a hard and barren place to be — constricted, isolated, unyielding.  Nothing live or beautiful can take seed in that ground.  It is not a place anyone actually wants to be but when you’re there, it can be a very difficult place to leave.

This year during Yom Kippur, our theme is From Anger to Engagement, exploring the ways that anger can be destructive to us when we operate from anger, and to those who become the targets of our rage.  There are certainly times when anger can be important — outrage at injustice or a valuable refusal of someone’s harmful actions.  But it matters greatly what we do with anger and how we learn from it.  It matters that we make anger our teacher in the process of teshuvah, healing the hurt we have caused through anger and transforming its bitterness at the root within.  Tonight, I want to look at some Jewish tools that can help us unsettle the ground that anger stands on and to learn, instead, to grow our skill and insight to choose other routes of response, and to guide us in gently turning the soil that keeps us growing in relationship.

Because the Torah is not a text of saints, but a spiritual guide for human experience, we turn to its characters’ mistakes and struggles as a mirror for our own lives.  We look to them for direction through the messes and moral blunders, toward growth and repair.  The descriptions of God in the Torah function in a similar way, with our biblical authors dressing God in human emotions and reactions, at times taken to wild extremes.  As a magnifying glass of cosmic proportions, the biblical God’s jealousy, rage, and violence can help us see ourselves far more clearly and specifically.  And at the same time, the God of the Torah is also dressed in holistic ideals, expressing the ultimate embodiment of the qualities we humans strive toward, even if we can never fully attain them.

So let’s look at God’s anger.  In Sefer Shmot, the book of Exodus, God’s greatest moment of anger arises when the Israelites build a Golden Calf at the foot of Mount Sinai.  Now if you were an Israelite and decided that you are just not on board with this communal project of moral development, mutual responsibility and living an attuned and sacred life, or if you decided that you are just not interested in learning to trust what you cannot see, you could just walk back to Egypt.  Or you could gather some like-minded buddies and just decide to take a different route through the desert.  But the Israelites stay at the base of Mount Sinai building a god of gold and dancing around it, while Moses is on the mountaintop, in communion with the Divine presence and receiving Torah on behalf of the entire people.

This is a betrayal of the highest order and God, in response, is enraged.  He cuts off relationship with the Israelites, telling Moses, “your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely” (Exodus 32:7).  God says to Moses, “I see that this is a stiff-necked people.”  And in that brief statement, God reduces the Israelites to a singular trait.  From now on, this is all they are and this is all they will ever be — stiff-necked, recalcitrant rebels.  And then God says, “Now leave me alone so that my anger might blaze forth against them and I may consume them.” (Exodus 32:10).

Through the lens of my own experiences of anger, I can feel God’s deep disappointment and hurt at being dismissed so callously after all that God has done for them — lifting them out of oppression, protecting them through the wilderness, and this is the thanks I get?  I can imagine God’s ‘end-of-my-rope’ frustration, holding out so much hope for what could be possible, so much hope for the future, and feeling powerless in the face of the Israelites’ disregard.  I feel palpable heartbreak and rage, embarrassingly intertwined.  Anger turns us ugly and God doesn’t want to be witnessed unleashing the anger that will destroy everything it touches.

You, too, probably know something about the anger of betrayal, frustrated powerlessness, and hurt.  A loyal friend betrays your trust; a partner breaches the boundaries of commitment; a family member manipulates to get what they want at the expense of others; your teenager ignores your hundreds of requests to please pick up their dirty socks, or to please stop drinking and lying.  Promises are broken.  The plans, the hopes, the relationship you thought you shared are upended.

And we on the receiving end are deeply hurt and we are angry.  It’s easy to experience ourselves as victims — betrayed, insulted, disregarded — and we see the other person as the culprit — callous, selfish, cruel.  The anger sits on top of grief, and it masks our lack of control and our pain.  In the face of all this, anger is legitimate, understandable.  But it often exiles us to the hard and trampled ground where we stand, fuming with rage, cut off from relationship, nursing our wounds, and being right.

There has to be another way to respond and Moses helps God get there.  As Yehudah Amichai writes …

But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.

From the hard earth of anger’s certainty to a landscape made pliable and open with doubts and loves, Moses reframes the terrain.  Torah moments like this are so wonderful when human beings stand up to the Creator of the Universe and point God toward higher ground.

Moses troubles the narrowness of this one moment with the doubts and loves of a wider picture.  He reminds God that the present is part of a long arc, from the original trusting love and covenant with Abraham, through Isaac and Israel, and reaching ahead into a future vision of shared purpose and joy with the whole Israelite people.  They have a precious history together.  They have overcome other obstacles together.  And with dancing timbrels and under countless stars, they have dreamed together and whispered promises.  Reminding God of the people at their best, Moses reasserts relationship.  Reminding the Holy One that it was God, not Moses, who freed the Israelites, who heard their suffering and was compelled to respond, Moses reminds God too, that this is a traumatized, broken people who are struggling and afraid, who don’t yet know how to live without fighting, or how to rest in trust and rise to meet it.  Doubts and loves — a wider, more complicated picture and a heart softened with empathy.

Then, with stunning audacity, Moses tells God, “Shuv mi’charon apecha — Turn from Your blazing anger”.  Shuv, turn,is from the same root as teshuvah.  Moses boldly tells God to do teshuvah and to renounce God’s plan to destroy the Israelites.  And God does.  God changes.  There are still consequences for the Israelites’ betrayal, the relationship still has to be mended and reconciled, but God’s anger is transformed.

One chapter later, Moses and God are back on Mount Sinai, carving a second set of tablets and discerning how to move forward.  This time, it is Moses who needs help with his anger in order to keep leading this challenging, frustrating nation.

Just like God, Moses needs guidance moving from the place where he is right to the fertile ground of engaged relationship.  But unlike with God, in Moses’ case the relationship that will release his rigid grip on being right is not directly about changing his relationship with the Israelites.  What he needs is greater closeness and intimacy with Adonai.  He asks to see God’s glory, to know God’s ways, to know the Divine essence of compassion and forgiveness so that it will hold him and strengthen him.  He needs intimacy with the Divine essence that Moses can nurture within himself so he’s able to face the Israelites in a new way.

As Moses stands in a cleft in the rock, the Divine presence passes before him and he hears:

Adonai adonai el rachum ve’chanun, erech apayim ve’rav chesed ve’emet, notzer chesed la’alaphim, noseh avon va’fesha ve’chata ve’nakeh.

Adonai, Adonai, merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love and truth, assuring love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon (Exodus 34:6,7).

The God who was blazing with wrath earlier is now able to reveal the qualities that transform anger, qualities that allow us to turn and face one another with our anger and grief, but also with our doubts and loves.  Mercy and compassion, patience and honesty, love and forgiveness.  We can’t simply uproot anger, but these qualities are the pathways and practices that teach us to expand our perspective, steeping us out of the insular prison of victimhood, to see one another through the light of patience and compassion.  These are the practices that help us reach through anger and reach for relationship.

When we chant these words on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we are asking the Holy One to see us at our best and to be compassionate with us.  Or phrased differently, we are asking to rest in the arms of abounding love, to be seen and to know ourselves through the eyes of mercy and compassion, no matter how angry and hurt we are, and no matter who we have angered or hurt.

And when we chant these words, we hold up a mirror for ourselves because these are the traits we strive to grow within, steadily, diligently, growing ever-expansive with generosity and flexible with humility.  These are the doubts and loves that guide us to open the ground for reconciliation and that plant seeds of connection and forgiveness between us.

May this be our good work, our courageous practice this Yom Kippur, and may we gather its blossoms in the year ahead.

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