Sermon: Acharei Mot (Justin Wise)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 2 May 2020

In the quiet of the last moments of the Amidah, there’s a private meditation, written by Mar bar Ravina, one of the Rabbis of Babylonia in the 4th century, which you might have just read to yourself.   


Elohai, he writes, My God, natzor l’shoni meirah, keep my tongue from causing harm, vesiftotai medaber mirmah and my lips from telling lies. V’limkal’lai nafshi tidom Let me be silent if people curse me v’nafshi c’afar l’chol tihyhe my soul still humble and at peace with all.  patach libi b’toratecha open my heart to your teaching v’acharei mitzvotecha tirdof nafshi and give me the will to practice it. 


Mar’s words have become for me among the most moving lines of our liturgy, and never so much as during these strange weeks since the pandemic arrived.  


I know that in part this is because I’m stretching his words in my own reading, though I think I’m being true to his intention. v’nafshi c’afar l’chol tihyhe ‘My soul still humble and at peace with all’, most literally means ‘at peace with all people, no matter how they treat me’. But I prefer to read as if it said v’nafshi c’afar l’chol sh tihyhe – my soul still humble and at peace with everything that happens’. Read that way, Mar’s words are an invitation into a profound kind of acceptance – a way of welcoming whatever life brings, however unwelcome or difficult it us.  v’nafshi c’afar my soul, humble or, literally, like the dust l’chol tihyeh with all of it.  


What might come of our recognising that there are ways we are like the dust, in the face of the enormity of the pandemic, with its scale and speed and the suffering it brings in its wake?  


I want to talk about three paths for thinking about the future that the pandemic might bring and our part in it, two of them which leave us powerless and the third, which I think is deeply in line with the heart of our own tradition, which opens up much wider possibilities. 


The first path is the path of despair. When we find ourselves ‘like the dust’ during this time, when we feel how small we are, and how powerless we are to have the world go just our way, we might just find ourselves resigned. Resigned to a future that is being widely predicted in the opinion pieces, in which we know already that the pandemic leads to inevitably rising inequality, fractured politics, misunderstanding and division and xenophobia.  


And perhaps in the face of our despair we’ll resign ourselves to doing nothing, to resuming lives of distraction or getting our priorities out of place or missing precious time with our loved ones, once the restrictions are lifted.  


Or perhaps we’ll follow a second path, equally despairing but dressed up with a kind of brittle hope. And that’s the path of the scapegoat, which we are just about to read together.  


Here’s how the scapegoat works. Two male goats are selected. Mishnah Yoma explains that the goats should be identical – no difference, no markings to tell them apart. Identical, but suffering very different fates, determined by lottery. By chance alone, one will be sacrificed by the priest. By chance alone, one will be sent off into the wilderness to die.  


By chance alone, just in the way we experience the pandemic at this time, and its unpredictable, uncontrollable way with who will become ill and who will not, who will suffer and who will recover. 


And then the scapegoat, the one chosen to be sent off to Azazel, into the wilderness, is the one to which Aaron confesses all of the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, and is the one that carries all of those sins away ‘to an inaccessible region’, that is, a place from which they cannot return. The scapegoat is the one which carries away our wrongdoing.  


The scapegoat story of the pandemic goes just like this. Despite the raging storm that we’re in the midst of, despite the fear and the pain and randomness of suffering, the deaths and loneliness and financial worry – despite all of this, when it’s all over,   

the pandemic will have turned out to be the force that cleanses us from all our mistakes and all our misunderstandings. We tell ourselves that we’ll emerge on the other side better people, and a better society, purified by our experiences, with new wisdom and new compassion. We’ll know what’s important, we’ll know we’re all in this together, we’ll find ourselves redeemed and ready to embark on a new life in which there’s less pollution, less waste, more mutual care, stronger community, and a more hopeful future than we’ve dared imagine in recent years. 


But hopeful as it sounds the path of the scapegoat leave us as powerless as the path of despair. The pandemic as the force that saves us may help us feel less despair but it’s shallow because it puts all of the agency, and all of the responsibility outside of us.  


Right when we’re most afraid, and feeling most constrained, it lets us off the hook, absolves us of our responsibility, has us retreat from the world. It makes all kinds of sense as an emotional defence strategy, a way to protect ourselves from how uncertain we feel, and how frightening it is to not know what is going to happen or when this is going to end, and perhaps it also helps us avoid our dread feelings about the calamity of climate change or populism or rising global instability. It gives us only a very brittle kind of hope because it leaves out our part, our partnership, in doing anything significant about any of this.  


And it blinds us to the way that the effect of the pandemic is not something that affects people in an entirely random way. Because it’s sweeping through a society that we together have made, and it disproportionately affects those who that society, built on monumental economic and social injustices, has kept away from the resources needed to have a chance to come through this ok. Those who cannot socially distance from others because there is no space in which to distance, those who cannot choose the safety of their houses because they don’t have them, or because the choice to stay at home is dangerous or means going hungry, those who have not found a way to feel supported and nurtured by community and who were already struggling before the pandemic arrived. And while some of us get to stay out of harm’s way there are people travelling into places where they cannot stay distant to do the essential things that support our society, bringing in supplies, delivering them, collecting the rubbish, providing security.  


Seeing that we are like the dust does not have to lead us down the path of despair, nor the path of the scapegoat that sweeps us clean without our having to do anything.  


There’s a third path we can choose to follow. 


v’nafshi c’afar l’chol tihyhe To be like the dust is to find ourselves like the ground itself, perhaps as if our faces were pressed to the soil.  


To be like the dust is to learn how to be humble.  


In English, the word ‘humble’ has similar earthy roots. Its’ associated with the ‘humus’, the dark loamy organic material that makes up the soil and out of which all plant life draws its nourishment.  


If being humble ‘like the dust’, is the necessary acceptance of what happens no matter how difficult it is, it does not have to mean despair. It can mean practicing the arts of welcoming the unwelcome, of learning to choose to live while we experience the unwanted because it is, simply, what life is bringing us. Being humble like the dust may also be the moment when, with our faces pressed to the ground, we discover a richness, an aliveness, the possibility that we might grow in courage and capacity and care. Indeed, in the tradition of the Musar, a path of Jewish ethical practice, to be truly humble is to find one’s place in the world and fill it, completely.  


This kind of being like the dust isn’t small and deflated and powerless. It’s a place of responsibility. It’s where we see we have to do the work with our own hands. Where we see we are going to have to make choices, about what of the world-before we want to let back in, and what we want to keep out.  


It’s where we see we’re going to have to stop, as a society, and think deeply about who is essential, and why the delivery drivers who bring us our food and goods, and the nurses who work in the hospitals, and the teachers who teach our children earn a tiny fraction of what is paid to the executives of large corporations.  


It’s where we see that not everything we’d chosen before was life giving, or dignified, or took care of what we really care about. 


For Mar bar Ravina too, humility leads to action. 


patach libi b’toratecha, he says, open my heart to your teaching v’acharei mitzvotecha tirdof nafshi and give me the will to practice it.  


As Mar reminds us, the work of our hands, the work of mitzvot – is also the work of our hearts, and it’s the proper response to being humbled. Open our hearts to your teaching – to the fountain of wisdom about right action that our engagement with Jewish life can bring. And then acharei mitzvotecha tirdof nafshi literally, ’my soul will run in pursuit of your mitzvot’.   


May we be rendered humble, Mar tells us, like the ground, in the face of all of this. And right then, may we find ourselves neither despairing nor waiting to be saved, but ready, our hearts soft and wide open, and because of that, may we find ourselves running towards the hopeful work of taking action, of making things, of changing what has long needed changing – pursuing, chasing after this responsibility, not waiting – of partnering with the divine to take care of what needs taking care of, not because the pandemic did it for us, not because it carried away our difficulties, but because it woke us up enough to want to tilt the world, and ourselves, further towards love and connection and repair.