Truth and Our Truest Selves
Erev Rosh HaShanah 5779
Rabbi David S. Widzer
L’shanah tovah! A happy and healthy new year to you all. For most of the children in our community, this past week marked the beginning of the new school year.
In their honor, I’m asking everyone here to take a quiz. Don’t worry, it’s a true/false quiz, so even if you guess, you’ve got a 50% chance of getting it right.
We’ll start off easy. True or false:
- We are presently in the state of New Jersey (True)
- Tonight is start of the new Jewish year (True)
- No other temple in the world is holding services tonight (False)
- The 1972 Miami Dolphins are the only football team to complete an undefeated season and win a Super Bowl (True)
- The chemical makeup of water is NaCl (False – that’s salt)
- The longest running Broadway musical in history is Cats (False:Phantom of the Opera)
- Nabisco has made a candy-corn flavored Oreo (True)
- I would never willingly eat a candy-corn flavored Oreo (False for me – I once did!)
- I have accomplished something this past year that I am proud of (True, I hope for all)
- I have said something this past year that I regret saying (True, I suspect)
- I’ve done nothing this year that caused someone else pain or sadness (False, I suspect)
- I have said “I am sorry” to people I have hurt (True, I hope)
- I want to act better, use my words better, and be a better person in the new year (True)
Good job, everyone. You all get an “A” for effort!
Rosh HaShannah, the start of our New Year, calls us to a season of truth. On a journey of introspection, we examine our actions, our thoughts, and our feelings, searching to root out that which is not authentically our truest selves. We slough off the skin of insincerity and inconvenience, distraction and denigration, exhaustion and excuse, which has prevented us from being whom we know ourselves to be. We reject the false narratives that have spun up around our lives, hiding the best versions of our selves from ourselves. We are called to be true to ourselves, to be true to our community, to be true to God, as we start a new year.
But how? What is truth? How do we find truth? How do we find our truest selves?
Not surprisingly, Judaism provides guidance for us. Our texts and traditions give us insight into the characteristics of truth and its importance. Turn with me to page 57. The first Hebrew word on the top of the page, in the upper right hand corner, is EMET, which means truth. My savvy Hebrew students will note something special about these letters. Aleph, the first letter of the word, is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Tav, the last letter of the word, is the last letter of the alphabet. And, if you include in the counting all of the final forms of the letters, the middle letter of the word, Mem, is the 2 middle letter of the alphabet. First, middle, last. EMET, truth, say our teachers, includes everything from one end of our lives to the other. Truth is all encompassing.
Something else to notice about the letters in the word, EMET. The Aleph and the Tav each have two points of contact with the baseline, two “legs,” as it were, on which to stand. The Mem in the middle has a solid base and an additional “leg.” All three letters are stable, solid, and well-grounded. In contrast, look on page 269. In the bottom paragraph of Hebrew on the page, on the second line, the 4th word from the right hand side, is shah-ker, a form of the Hebrew word sheker, meaning “lie” or “falsehood.” The three letters that make up that word, Shin, Koof, Resh, each balance on a single point, standing on one foot, as it were. Our sages point out that truth is firmly established, while falsehood cannot stand firm. In fact, truth is seen as a foundation of the world. The first century sage, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, taught “The world is sustained by three things: by judgment, by truth, and by peace.”
Seventeen hundred years later, our American forbearers also believed in the foundational nature of truth: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” And yet, in our country today, the concept of truth seems imperiled. Back in 2005, comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness,” to describe things that seem true, even if they aren’t. He used it to mock political punditry and opinions that are unencumbered by facts or logic, but just “feel” right. “Truthiness” stands stands in stark contrast to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s maxim that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. With “truthiness,” if something feels right and true to you, then it is true, or at least “truth-y,” regardless of the facts. Apparently, you can have your own set of “alternative facts,” without regard for truth. And this questioning of the concept of truth was taken to an extreme recently in an interview about a discussion between former FBI Director James Comey and President Donald Drumpf, when Rudy Giuliani said that “truth isn’t truth.”
Now, my major as an undergraduate was philosophy, so I’m comfortable with questions about the nature of truth. There’s a concept called “moral relativism,” that may come into play here, as it questions the existence of universal truths and values. Moral relativism is not about an instance where two people remember a conversation and its outcome differently. That’s a disagreement or a difference of opinion or perspective, at best, or an example of someone lying, at worst. Moral relativism is the belief that truth and normative values are only relative to the culture in which they are espoused. If bribery of public officials is an accepted aspect of the society in which you live, something everyone agrees to and part of the functioning of your culture, moral relativism says that bribery, for that culture, is not bad. If only left-handed people are permitted to vote and hold positions of office in your culture, and that’s an accepted part of society, then moral relativism says that others cannot judge your society poorly for having that rule. In moral relativism, there is no universal truth, no absolute norms or values. In moral relativism, with the malleability of language, if we mean “absolute truth,” then truth isn’t truth. To paraphrase President Clinton, it all depends on what the definition of the word “truth” is.
Judaism rejects this idea of moral relativism, of alternative facts, of truthiness. Judaism posits that there is Truth, with a capital “T.” And that capital “T” stands for 3 Torah, meaning not just the scroll we keep in the Ark, but the enduring Jewish values and life lessons it teaches. For some Jews, Torah is the literal word of God. Because God said it, it is inherently true and the embodiment of Truth, capital “T.” In Reform Judaism, we consider Torah our best guide to finding Truth, using its teachings to shape our lives, inform our choices, and help us be our truest selves.
Judaism doesn’t doubt that Truth exists. And Judaism is certain that Truth can be found. There’s a wonderful midrash – a rabbinic story told to explain a Biblical text – that demonstrates this. The midrash is about the creation of the first human being. Rabbi Simeon says: As God was about to create Adam, the angels were divided into groups. Some said, “Create him.” Others said, “Don’t create him.” … Love said, “Let him be created, because he will perform acts of love.” Truth said, “Don’t create him, because he will be all lies (shekarim).” Righteousness said, “Create him, because he will do righteous deeds.” Peace said, “Don’t create him, because he will be all strife.”
And what did God do? God seized hold of Truth and cast it down to the earth, as it says in the book of Daniel, You “cast truth to the ground.” Then the angels said to God, “Why did you despise your Angel of Truth? Let Truth rise up from the earth, as it is said in Psalms, “Truth springs out of the earth.”
We take from this midrash tonight that Truth is not distant from us, out of reach and inaccessible. Truth is right here among us, on earth. It exists. It can be found. There is an echo of the passage from Deuteronomy that we will read on Yom Kippur morning, where we are told that God’s guidance “lo nifleit hi, v’lo rechokah hi,” “is not hidden from you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven and bring it to us that we may hear it and do it?’ … This thing is very near to you.” One modern commentator explains: “God embeds EMET in this world and makes it part of creation. That is, EMET is always there for anybody who truly looks for it. … We don’t create our own truth; it is just there for us to uncover if we truly seek it. … This does not mean we can always find it; however, we can come closer to it the more we seek it.” Of course, you have to be willing to look for it. Another commentator tells the story: “Someone asked their rebbe, ‘If truth was thrown to the ground, it should be readily available to everyone.’ The rebbe responded, ‘Yes, but most people are too lazy to bend down and pick it up.’”
I think there is Truth for us. I think we need to be willing to search for it, to strive for it. I don’t think this is Truth, as in the Ultimate Answer to Everything, like Johnny Carson holding an envelope up to his forehead with the answer already written inside. For me, when we talk about Truth in this way, it being embedded in all of creation, accessible to us if we can make the effort to find it, this is more about Truth in being ourselves.
Being our truest self means discovering what is important to us. It means staying true to our ideals. Torah and Jewish tradition are our guides for knowing this. From Abraham, we learn how to treat the stranger and how to stand up for the righteous. From Rebecca, we learn compassion and determination in making our own fate. From Joseph, we learn forgiveness and faith in God. From Ruth, we learn devotion and family loyalty. From Solomon, we learn the importance of wisdom in concert with kindness. From Esther, the bravery of accepting your identity. From the Psalmist, the comfort and solace we can bring to others. From our sages and rabbis, we learn how to make God’s will work in this world.
We find the values embedded as truth in our heritage. One of the great Reform rabbis of the 20th century, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, had a beautiful metaphor for this. He wrote: “I try to walk the road of Judaism. Embedded in that road there are many jewels. One is marked ‘Sabbath’ and one ‘Civil Rights’ and one ‘Kashruth’ and one ‘Honor Your Parents’ and one ‘You Shall Be Holy.’ There are at least 613 of them and they are different shapes and sizes and weights. Some are light and easy for me to pick up, and I pick them up. Some are too deeply embedded for me, so far at least, though I get a little stronger by trying to extricate the jewels as I walk the street. Some, perhaps, I shall never be able to pick up. I believe that God expects me to keep on walking Judaism Street and to carry away whatever I can.”
The values and truths we find in Judaism help shape our truest selves. Over the centuries, Judaism developed a practice called Musar, a mode of character education and personal spiritual development. The Musar movement coalesced in the 19th century around the leadership of Rabbi Israel Salanter, who saw its ethical teachings and personal practice as a means of drawing people closer to Judaism’s enduring truths. The study of Musar texts leads to better self-control of the baser human impulses and the living of Torah’s values in business and social interactions. In our own day, a 21st century Musar Movement is active in the Jewish world, with institutes, retreats, workshops, and online learning available to share how Judaism’s values and ethical teachings can help us be our truest selves.
This goal of finding our truth and living our truest lives is not unique to our era. From the golden age of Chassidic Jewry, the story is told of Reb Zusya. As he neared the end of his life, lying on his deathbed, his disciples gathered around him, they noticed he was crying. “Do not fear, Reb Zusya,” they comforted him. “You have led a pious life. You have done so many mitzvot. You have performed acts of lovingkindss and given tzedakah to those in need. You have taught so many of us. You’ll stand before the heavenly tribunal and they will welcome you in with open arms!”
But Zusya continued to cry. “Why are you crying, Reb Zusya?” they asked. “I have learned the question that God will ask me,” he replied. “Surely you have lead such a life that you would not be afraid of answering questions, even from God!” said his students. “What will God ask you, that makes you cry?”
Reb Zusya explained, “God will not ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Moses?” for I would reply, ‘Moses was a prophet, but I am not.’ God will not ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Joshua?” for I would reply, ‘Joshua was a general, but I am not.’ God will not ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like King David?” for I would reply, ‘David was a ruler and a poet, but I am not.’ No, God will say to me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?’ And what will I say to that?”
Reb Zusya’s challenge is ours as well. How can we be most truly ourselves in this new year? How do we find truth in a world where truth feels fleeting or endangered? Rosh HaShanah calls us to grapple with these questions. Judaism points us towards answers. Truth is all encompassing, not partial or relative. Truth is firmly established, well-grounded, springing up from the ground, even. Torah and Jewish values are close to us, accessible, available to influence the choices we make and the way we live our lives. Our heritage gives us role models to emulate and ethical practices to enact. In doing so, EMET, truth, is there for us to discover in the world around us and deep within ourselves. 5 Our prayerbook teaches, “Emet v’emunah kol zot,” “All this we hold to be true and certain.” May it be so for us in the new year.
May 5779 be a year of truth for us, and a year of returning to our truest selves.
Kein yehi ratzon, may this be God’s will.
And let us say, Amen.