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Sin Does Not Define Us (Kol Nidre – 09/29/17)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Sin Does Not Define Us

3330 years ago, our forefathers did something utterly regrettable.

The Bnei Yisrael just heard the Ten Commandments from G-d upon Mt. Sinai and Moses ascends the mountain to receive the Tablets of Stone. He says, he’ll be back in 40 days, yet, he doesn’t return in time.

He must have died! We’re leaderless! Who’s going to be the intermediary between us and G-d.

Even though we know it’s wrong, we act impetuously and forge a Golden Calf.

ספר שמות פרק לב

ד) וַיִּקַּח מִיָּדָם וַיָּצַר אֹתוֹ בַּחֶרֶט וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם

Aharon made a molten calf, and they said, this is your G-d Israel who brought you up from the Land of Egypt

It was a terrible sin of disobedience, lack of trust and Idolatry.

Yet, we were not limited or defined by this act. There was forgiveness and atonement.

The next day, Moshe descended the mountain, smashed the Tablets G-d had given him, destroyed the idol, punished the sinners and led the nation on the path of repentance.

Moshe tells G-d:

ספר שמות פרק לב

לב) וְעַתָּה אִם תִּשָּׂא חַטָּאתָם וְאִם אַיִן מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ:

“Either You forgive these people, or You can erase me from this book.”

The appeasement takes time, but G-d not only acquiesces, He tells him to get working on a new pair of tablets.

ספר שמות פרק לד

א) וַיֹּאמֶר יְדֹוָד אֶל משֶׁה פְּסָל לְךָ שְׁנֵי לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים כָּרִאשֹׁנִים וְכָתַבְתִּי עַל הַלֻּחֹת אֶת הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ עַל הַלֻּחֹת הָרִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ

“And G-d said to Moses, Chisel for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write upon them the words that were on the first ones you broke.”

G-d also teaches Moses the 13 attributes of Mercy, so if they sin again, Moses will know what to do.

ו) וַיַּעֲבֹר יְדֹוָד עַל פָּנָיו וַיִּקְרָא יְדֹוָד יְדֹוָד אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת:

ז) נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְעַל בְּנֵי בָנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים:

Finally, after a second 40 day period on the Mountain top, Moshe descends with the new tablets. All is forgiven and a new stage in our history begins.

The day that Moses descended with the second pair of Tablets was the tenth of Tishrei in the year 2448. We had sinned and rebelled, but we repented, asked for forgiveness and we were able to make a new start. Sin did not hold us back or define us. Ever since then, the 10th of Tishrei became designated as a day of forgiveness known as Yom Kippur

About 700 years before the episode of the Golden Calf, there was an even more monumental sin. Noah and his wife, and his three sons and daughters-in-law exit the Ark and begin to reestablish their lives upon the planet.

ספר בראשית פרק ט

כ) וַיָּחֶל נֹחַ אִישׁ הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּטַּע כָּרֶם:

כא) וַיֵּשְׁתְּ מִן הַיַּיִן וַיִּשְׁכָּר וַיִּתְגַּל בְּתוֹךְ אָהֳלֹה:

כב) וַיַּרְא חָם אֲבִי כְנַעַן אֵת עֶרְוַת אָבִיו וַיַּגֵּד לִשְׁנֵי אֶחָיו בַּחוּץ:

כג) וַיִּקַּח שֵׁם וָיֶפֶת אֶת הַשִּׂמְלָה וַיָּשִׂימוּ עַל שְׁכֶם שְׁנֵיהֶם וַיֵּלְכוּ אֲחֹרַנִּית וַיְכַסּוּ אֵת עֶרְוַת אֲבִיהֶם וּפְנֵיהֶם אֲחֹרַנִּית וְעֶרְוַת בִיהֶם לֹא רָאוּ:

כד) וַיִּיקֶץ נֹחַ מִיֵּינוֹ וַיֵּדַע אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לוֹ בְּנוֹ הַקָּטָן:

כה) וַיֹּאמֶר אָרוּר כְּנָעַן עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים יִהְיֶה לְאֶחָיו:

כו) וַיֹּאמֶר בָּרוּךְ יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֵי שֵׁם וִיהִי כְנַעַן עֶבֶד לָמוֹ:

כז) יַפְתְּ אֱלֹהִים לְיֶפֶת וְיִשְׁכֹּן בְּאָהֳלֵי שֵׁם וִיהִי כְנַעַן עֶבֶד לָמוֹ:

“And Noah began to be a master of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Japheth took the garment, and they placed [it] on both of their shoulders, and they walked backwards, and they covered their father’s nakedness, and their faces were turned backwards, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and he knew what his small son had done to him. And he said, “Cursed be Canaan; he shall be a slave among slaves to his brethren.” And he said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem, and may Canaan be a slave to them. May God expand Japheth, and may He dwell in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be a slave to them.”

We don’t even know for sure what Cham or Canaan did to Noach.

כב) וַיַּרְא חָם אֲבִי כְנַעַן אֵת עֶרְוַת אָבִיו וַיַּגֵּד לִשְׁנֵי אֶחָיו בַּחוּץ

All we do know is that he saw his father (or if the verse is referring to Canaan, his grandfather) drunk, naked and exposed and did nothing but tell his older brothers or uncles.

But what do know is that this is our story of the origin of slavery, of inequality among men. That some people are lesser and deserving to be slaves to others.

Noah felt that what this youngest son did, defined him. Canaan can’t live independently, he needs to be a slave. His essence is to be subservient to others.

This continued to be mainstream human belief for the next 4000 years.

Whether it’s whites feeling superior to blacks or Aryans feeling superior to Jews, there’s a biblical belief in the superiority of certain races over others.

This continued even when our Declaration of Independence was penned:

“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”, it didn’t however include those rights for slaves.

On February 8, 1864, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed:  “All persons are equal before the law, so that no person can hold another as a slave; and the Congress shall have power to make all laws necessary and proper to carry this declaration into effect everywhere in the United State.”

Yet even after the amendment, the supremacists, not willing to concede defeat insisted on “Separate But Equal.” A situation that perpetuated status divisions.

In 1954, Brown vs. The Board of Education ruled that separate facilities were inherently unequal, and ordered school districts and other public facilities to desegregate.

It’s 63 years since then, but we still hear the cries that Black lives Matter.

Our president screams “Fire the sons of bitches”, but he’s a white man raised in the upper middle class, living now among the upper class. Can he truly feel their pain? Does he identify with their suffering?

LeBron James, someone now with money close to Trump’s, didn’t have a steady home to sleep in until he was 16 years old.

James’ mother, Gloria, gave birth to him when she was just 16. His father was never an influence. From the age of 3 until he was in high school, James never had a permanent home. He slept on a lot of couches and he learned to play basketball from a milk crate attached to a telephone pole. Can Trump identify with this upbringing?

Celebrities from Colin Kaepernick to Kevin Hart talk about their hardships about just being black. I think if we were driving a Bentley we wouldn’t get randomly pulled over by the police, but they have.

NBA Legend Bill Russell won 11 Championships with the Boston Celtics, yet when his number was retired in Boston Garden, it was in a private ceremony. He didn’t want to celebrate with the city that he felt never accepted him because he was black.

We Jews have a blessing thanking G-d for making us free people, and for making us Jews. Maybe we should say this blessing with more gusto, for we (or most Jews) don’t suffer the difficulties and challenges of waking up with black skin in America.

Yom Kippur is designated as our national day of forgiveness. We were forgiven as a people 3330 years ago, and we’re forgiven individually now.

As part of the human race, we need to ask forgiveness for our role in slavery and race discrimination. Jews did own slaves in ancient Israel, there might have been some Jewish slave owners in the South, but the Talmud is full of laws about ownership of slaves and our Torah legitimized slavery for millennia. Just as sin did not define and limit us by the Sin of the Golden Calf, so it should not define Ham, Canaan, or any other race placed in the slave mold.

Biblical slavery is based upon the innate inferiority or superiority of different races. As we progress in time upon this planet, we’ve come to learn that we’re all the same, genetically, physically, emotionally and spiritually. We may vary in height, skin color, eye color, etc., but all cultures and peoples are simply seeking the same privileges: Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. No race should be limited or defined by a sin or role they played in the past.

Yom Kippur is a day to purify ourselves individually. I see the “Al Chait” confessions (for the sin of….) as a spiritual power cleaning. We’re clearing the barnacles of bad attitude and behavior off ourselves, starting the new year  renewed and purged and cleansed. But it’s also designated as a day of communal forgiveness and we can’t ignore the times we live in. Prejudice is still prominent in our American society. It’s rooted in the belief that one race, one color is greater than the other, and our own Bible contributed to the problem. You can be sure that Roger Moore, the Republican Senatorial candidate from Alabama with be holding a bible in his hand as he toutes his divisive beliefs. Therefore, as we begin Yom Kippur, let’s repent communally upon this. We’re sorry for how we contributed to slavery and discrimination, and we resolve ourselves to treat all people as equals. Our repentance from here in the gym, our improvement in behavior will ripple through society so that years from now, America will truly be a land where all men and women are created equal and treated equally.

Shana Tova

Manetto Hill Jewish Center
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