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"Our Forgetting and Our Remembering"- Erev Yom Kippur 5779

09/25/2018 12:33:57 PM


Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

L’shanah Tovah, G’mar Chatimah Tovah!

There are many things my father taught me. Some were easier for me to learn than others.

I especially remember his emphasis on positive thinking. Instead of saying to someone, “Don’t forget to …” whatever, you can fill in the blank; you should say, “Remember to …” My father may have offered a minor bit of reframing, but that little change of direction made a huge impression on me.

Perhaps even more germane to the subject of forgetting and remembering is a beautiful midrash from the Talmud[1] on the origin of the philtrum, that little divot that lies just beneath our noses. Many of us know this story.

While a child is still in the womb, so goes the midrash, an angel of God teaches it the entirety of Torah. When the child passes into living world, the angel touches the child just above the lips, causing the child to forget everything they had known.

The origin of this midrash lies in the rabbis’ explanation as to why a baby cries when first born. Their midrashic conclusion was that the child was unhappy at the prospect of having to go and re-learn everything.

Well, this much is true: We Jews do love learning and, at least once we’re born, we actually do remember things. And forgetting something would make us very unhappy.

When it comes to Jewish learning, the Torah is replete with commands about memory: “Remember the atrocities of the people of Amalek”, the first nation to attack Israel after its departure from Egypt.[2] “Remember the Sabbath day and sanctify it”.[3] “Remember the day we went forth from Egypt”.[4] “Remember all the kindnesses God offered to us”,[5] and so forth.

That the Torah focuses on remembering these significant events might suggest that we humans need constant reminding, so that, indeed, we don’t forget the important matters before us. Especially at this season, as we review our deeds from this past year, our remembering must be keenly honed, to honestly and fully address the tasks of repentance that we confront. Misdeeds are easy to repress; part of the work of this holiday is the task of remembering and holding ourselves accountable.

 “Hinei ma-tov”, how good it is, to be in a community of like-minded individuals, each of us with our faults, each engaging in the process of refining ourselves, and accepting both our tendency to forget and our willingness to be shown how best to remember.

At this season, there are two kinds of remembering which we must practice.

First, we need to remember who we are. As Lamed-Vavniks in training, we must develop courage to be exemplars, that our righteous behavior can encourage others to lives of goodness. For it’s not a moment of remembering, it’s the constant vigilance to be our best selves. Further, if we remember that we are mentsches, then we can confidently teach others to be mentsches, too.

Second, we must remember to protect others, whether in our nuclear families or in our community. Our mentschlichkeit must be used as a force for good in the world.

*     *     *     *

Sometimes, demonstrating our mentschy qualities means making grand sacrifices for a higher cause. In this light, I would like to relate two brief true stories to you. They are about two men whose lives intertwine; both demonstrate courage, and their actions are, I think, germane to this day.[6]

Many years ago, Al Capone owned virtually all of Chicago. He wasn't famous for anything of a wholesome or decent nature. He was notorious for blanketing the city in illegal enterprises such as bootlegged liquor, prostitution, and murder.

Capone’s lawyer was nicknamed ‘Easy Eddie’. He was very good at his job; his legal maneuvering kept Al Capone out of jail on many occasions.

Capone paid Easy Eddie very well and filled his life with luxuries. And Eddie lived the high life of the Chicago mob and paid very little attention to the atrocities taking place around him. Like his boss, Eddie was far from a mensch.

Eddie did have one soft spot, however. He had a son whom he loved dearly. Eddie made sure that his son was well taken care of and was given a good education. Despite his involvement with organized crime, Eddie even tried to teach him right from wrong. Yet, despite his wealth and influence, there were two things he couldn't give his son; he couldn't pass on a good name, and he could not set a good example of righteous living.

These moral quandaries so exasperated Easy Eddie, that one day he determined to rectify the wrongs he had done and turn state’s evidence against Al Capone.

He would tell the truth about the gang’s activities, clean up his own tarnished name, and offer his son an example of integrity. He would also need to testify against the Mob, and he knew that the cost would be his life. (And he was, indeed, gunned down by the Mob on a deserted Chicago street.) But in his eyes, he had given his son the greatest gift he had to offer, even at the greatest price he could ever pay.

Now for the second story.

World War II produced many heroes, among which was Lieutenant Commander Butch O'Hare. He was a fighter pilot assigned to the aircraft carrier Lexington in the South Pacific.

On one occasion, all the planes on his carrier were sent on a mission. Once airborne, Butch realized that his plane did not have adequate fuel for both the mission and a return to his carrier. His flight leader told him to return to base, so reluctantly, he dropped out of formation and headed back to the fleet.

As he neared his ship, he saw something that made his blood boil; a squadron of Japanese aircraft was headed toward his naval group, apparently in attack formation.

His comrades were out on their sortie and unreachable, and the fleet was all but defenseless. He couldn’t even warn the fleet of the approaching danger. There was only one thing to do. He must somehow divert the enemies from bombing the fleet.

Laying aside thoughts of personal safety, he flew straight toward the formation of Japanese planes. His wing-mounted guns blazed as he charged in, attacking one surprised enemy plane after then another. Butch wove in and out of the now broken formation and fired at as many planes as possible until all his ammunition was finally gone.  

Undaunted, he continued the assault. He dove at the planes, trying to clip a wing or tail in hopes of damaging as many enemy planes as possible, rendering them unfit to fly.

Finally, the exasperated Japanese squadron took off in another direction. And Butch O'Hare and his tattered fighter eventually landed back on the carrier.

Upon arrival, he related the event surrounding his return; film from the gun-camera mounted on his plane confirmed the tale. It showed the extent of Butch's daring attempt to protect the fleet. He had, in fact, destroyed five enemy aircraft.

This took place in February 1942, and for that action Butch became the first Naval Aviator to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Sadly, a year later, Butch was killed in aerial combat; he was 29. His hometown would not allow the memory of this WW II hero to fade, and today, O'Hare Airport in Chicago is named in tribute to the courage of this great man.

So, what do these two stories have to do with each other?

Butch O'Hare was Easy Eddie’s son.

And while Butch the aviator—we can all agree—was a true hero, his father, in the end, also demonstrated righteous behavior to a young and impressionable mind, who thereby learned how to live in a responsible way.

Perhaps rehabilitation can occur even after a life of deceit and crime. Perhaps even a mobster can produce a mentsch.

Now, being a noted hero may not be the fate of each person in this congregation tonight, but we become heroes in our own right when we teach others by our example; how we endure even the most difficult of circumstances for a higher cause; and how we teach another person to persevere even in the face of likely defeat. These are ways that we teach others to be mentsches.

*     *     *     *

The heroism of people like Butch O’Hare is celebrated and public. But there are others whose heroism is private and passes unnoticed; others who quietly endure indignities and violations that are routinely unacknowledged and often disbelieved; people who, as much as Butch O’Hare, deserve to be remembered.

We must acknowledge and remember those who are exposed to danger and humiliation as survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment. These survivors need our support and trust, and individuals and society must be there for them.

Predators involved in crimes of violence and sexuality violate two of Judaism’s prime directives, which are (1) that all people were created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the divine, and (2) that our health and our bodies are gifts from God that we are to protect and nurture[7]. Crimes combining violence, power, and/or sex have no place in our world.

As inheritors of a tradition that takes seriously the issue of modesty and respect in matters of human sexuality, we should be able to identify with the survivors of sexual abuse. We know well—and we agonize over—the Torah story of the rape of Dinah, the only daughter of our patriarch Jacob and matriarch Leah, a story presented to us in the pithy language of two verses of Torah, in the thirty-fourth chapter of Genesis:

Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite leader, took a look at Dinah: He seized her; he raped her; and he humiliated her[8].

And after Shechem rapes Dinah, he begins to show affection for her. The Torah next says his ‘soul clung to her’, he ‘loved her’, and he spoke kindly to her[9].

The language of the Torah is curt, yet both the words and cadence transmit the naïveté, carelessness, and—most important—the callousness of Shechem’s violence-driven approach to sex and love.

This is not the only illustration of lust and violence of this kind in the Hebrew Bible: We could consider King David’s rape of Batsheva, the wife of Uriah the Hittite[10]; Judah’s mistreatment of his daughter-in-law Tamar[11]; or when the wife of Potiphar attacks Joseph, who rebuffs her seduction only to be arrested for a false accusation of attempted rape[12].

We have countless contemporary examples to consider as well; some are high visibility crimes: Just in the last few weeks, another large child abuse scandal rocks the Catholic church. A prestigious New York Jewish day school’s leadership dating back to the 1970’s admits to ongoing sexual attacks on young students. Also called to mind is the Washington-DC Orthodox rabbi who, a few years ago, clandestinely photographed women in his synagogue’s mikvah’s dressing room. Even the immediate past president of Israel—Mosheh Katsav—served a five-year prison sentence for rape and obstruction of justice.

Occurrences of sexual harassment and abuse have involved people from show business to athletics to academia to religion to science to politics to jurisprudence to…so many fields. A new headline seems to appear daily.

But now, empowerment is in the offing; survivors are believed; they are empowering each other to confront this problem; and they are amassing the necessary fortitude and support to take on their attackers.

As we witness the parade of women coming forward seeking to be believed, many of us can only imagine their pain, embarrassment, and frustration. But I invite us also to imagine their prayers: “Who will be by my side? Who will stand with me? Who will intervene on my behalf?”

And our response must be, “I hear you. I am sorry. How can I support you.” For Judaism teaches that we must not stand idly by the blood of a neighbor[13], so each of us must ally with survivors of sexually based violence and confront the ugly implications of inaction and apathy.

What does it mean to be an ally in this modern context? It means listening well to those whom we support. It means stepping in and firmly reproving someone who tells a sexual or sexist joke. It means acting according to the survivors wishes and strategies, and not imposing our own, sometimes misinformed, approaches. It means standing in the shadows, permitting the survivor to tell what they need, and assisting as invited by the survivor.

In the Yom Kippur context, what is needed to address these transgressions against humanity? Should perpetrators of sexual abuse and harassment be able easily to rehabilitate their public careers when few have demonstrated the requisite amount of shame, guilt, and sincere atonement? And how do we, as a society, seek repentance for such behavior, especially when public celebrity apologies seem too facile?

As Rabbi Albert Friedlander (z”l) said

“We can have compassion for damaged, tainted human beings who have come to personify evil in the world. We can hope that they will return and repent. We can and do recommend them to the judgment and compassion of God. But, here in the real world, we have to defend standards of justice and must fight against evil”.[14]

For those infamous perpetrators of sexual abuse and violence, simple norms of reconciliation do not suffice. Apologies, even when they are public, do not allow for true justice to be meted out. Public displays of remorse, especially those without real consequences, should not allow perpetrators to manipulate the system and continue the harm they inflict. Public shame is not enough. Perpetrators must be held accountable in a court of law. There should be no statute of limitations on crimes of sexual violence.

Rehabilitation can come only when the perpetrator has performed these actions: publicly expressed remorse, privately expressed their guilt and sorrow and sought forgiveness, compensated the survivor, performed visible acts of public service, demonstrated repeated resistance to temptation to sin when presented with the opportunity, and, most importantly, served an appropriate prison sentence.

The hardest part of this holiday is our determination as to whether an apology or act of contrition is enough to warrant forgiveness. Especially when society so often affords a smooth and speedy path to redemption for even these worst of offenders.

Author and sex educator Merissa Nathan Gerson challenges us by asking us to consider a new “Al Cheit” in our worship. This prayer of confession relates to the sin that we commit by not forcefully addressing issues of sexual violence and harassment. Her attitude is that even if only one person sins, we are all responsible. So, she offers this new liturgy:

“Forgive us for the times that a person said ‘no’ and we overrode the voice of that person and continued finding our own pleasures.

“Forgive us for the times that someone looked so scarred as we were pursuing our own pleasure and we thought nothing of it, because our pleasure was more important than their safety.

“Forgive us for the times that we were so arrogant that we thought that rape and sexual violence aren't real; forgive us for the arrogance to feel that if it didn't happen to us then it couldn't be real.

“And forgive us for the times that we were so drunk, that it didn’t even occur to us that our partner might say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, yet we could not discern the difference between the two because we had lost our ability do so.[15]

*     *     *     *

 Like the crimes themselves, survivors are easily forgotten by society. They have been written off in the past, and that is our collective sin. So, let us remember how best to address their needs and repair the breech between them and society.

Let us also remember that there is a chance, even for criminals, to reform their behavior if given proper direction and motivation. The sins of one generation need not infect the next, so long as we model the qualities of a Lamed-Vavnik, wielding both the righteousness and justice necessary to fix the world.

May this Yom Kippur be a day of good thought, good company, easy fasting, and significant commitments to tikkun olam.

Ken y’hi lratzon. May this be God’s will. Amen.


[1] Niddah 30b

[2] Deuteronomy 25:17

[3] Exodus 20:8

[4] Exodus 13:3

[5] Deuteronomy 7:18 plus many others

[7] Genesis 1:27

[8] Genesis 34:2

[9] Ibid., 34:3

[10] II Samuel 11

[11] Genesis 38

[12] Genesis 39

[13] Leviticus 19:16

[14] “Multicultural Britain and Interfaith Dialogue”, Margaret Shepherd and Jonathan Gorsky. Public Life and the place of the Church: Reflections to Honor the Bishop of Oxford, edited by Michael Brierley. 2006.

July 25, 2021 16 Av 5781