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North Shore Temple Emanuel

a Progressive Jewish Congregation

The Human Project
Rabbi Nicole Roberts
Kol Nidre 5782/2021


Every so often, though we rabbis spend time mining ancient texts for guiding wisdom, we discover a gem in the most unlikely of places.  On Facebook a couple of months ago, I stumbled across a quote that a cousin of mine had posted, and it’s lodged itself in my rabbinic brain ever since.  I don’t know the original source.  It simply said this: “Someone else is praying for the things you take for granted.”

That’s it… just one line.  One life-changing little line, which has sparked for me so many questions.  Maybe you’ve heard the term “earworm” for a song that repeats over and over again in your head?  This quote is becoming my soulworm—I hear it repeatedly in my soul.  I heard it one day, for instance, while complaining about not being able to go out to eat or for a haircut or massage, then caught a glimpse of The Diary of Anne Frank on my bookshelf.  I hear it whenever I think about Covid vaccine hesitancy in wealthy countries, while developing nations struggle to acquire even a first dose of the jab.  I heard it when I read that 2 billionaires had launched themselves into space while 8 billion people remained here on earth plagued by a deadly virus, global warming, and astounding economic disparity.  And I hear it whenever I feel like complaining about the confines of lockdown—of being “stuck” at home—in the midst of the largest refugee crisis since World War II.  Someone else is praying for the things I take for granted.

By sharing this quote, I don’t mean to simplify life down to a pithy maxim, or to downplay any of our suffering.  It’s been a hard year for each of us, in ways that are very individual.  And it never eases one’s own affliction to imagine somebody else’s, or to know that someone else would be grateful for everything we have, even our “first world problems.”  But I feel troubled by the question this soulworm repeatedly raises for me about the world’s inequity.  The quote does not simply say, for instance: “Be mindful of the good things in your life that you may be overlooking”; it says that someone else—a real person—doesn’t have those things, and longs for them, and that this “someone else” has no way of getting those things except perhaps by praying for a miracle: praying that those of us in said first world will focus less on what we lack and shift our focus to how much we have; praying that we’ll then take the step of sharing what we have, sufficiently to meet their needs; or that we’ll make the even more improbable leap of becoming architects of structural change in society. 

This feels like a pretty unlikely miracle.  And imagining how many people in our world must be praying for it in futility makes me question how we’re doing at what some call “the human project.”  The human experiment.  Whether humanity will prove to be a net benefit to the universe; whether we will survive as a species and not annihilate ourselves; whether we, as a species, are flourishing or languishing—that is, whether we can rise above mere day to day survival and reach for higher purpose, aspire to a higher moral plane, and ensure a higher standard of living—not just for the fortunate few, but for every human being, so no one has to pray for what others take for granted.  Each Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of our creation, we have opportunity to take stock of the human project and ask, is this what God had in mind when planting us on earth and commanding us to “be fruitful”?  This first commandment, p’ru ur’vu, literally “to blossom and become great”—was this only about growing our numbers, or about growing into something more?  Was it only about filling the universe, or about fulfilling God’s aspiration for us?  How are we measuring up? 

These are my questions.  Because as a species, it seems we’ve gotten something terribly wrong and can’t, for the life of us, figure out how to change course and do things differently.  Australian activist and Harvard professor Dennis Altman writes, “I believe…that the world has sufficient resources and knowledge to ensure good life to everyone,” so “it is absurd that millions are hungry, living on the streets and without access to health and education.”  Our problem isn’t insufficient resources, he claims, but insufficient imagination, specifically [quote] “an inability to imagine a commonality of human experience.”  For example, he says, “most of us would feel uneasy eating a sumptuous meal in front of a group of starving children.  Yet once the connection is less obviously in front of us, we fail to make that connection.”  This is precisely why the soulworm quote is so powerful.  It makes us imagine those praying for what we take for granted.  It makes us picture those children at our table.  It reminds us that we ourselves—I myself—may well be part of the human project gone wrong. 

Judaism, however, does not take a defeatist view.  While Rosh Hashanah compels us to ask difficult questions about how humanity is going, Yom Kippur offers the promise that we can still turn things around.  That’s the very meaning of the word teshuvah—a turning.  What is written on Rosh Hashanah isn’t necessarily sealed on Yom Kippur.  The ten days in between are pivotal.  So where do we begin?

Our turning begins with our acknowledgement of where the human project went awry.  Our vidui confessions, cast always in the plural form, suggest that we, humanity collectively, are at fault.  This is the beginning of our turning.  Al cheit she’chatanu l’fanecha—for the sins we have committed through careless speech, slander, and hardened hearts; through disrespect of teachers and dishonesty in business.  Al cheit she’chatanu l’fanecha—for the sins we have committed through sexual immorality, consumption, greed and exploitation.  These ten Days of Repentance bring us to our most humble, shameful view of ourselves as a human species.  But in our Yom Kippur liturgy, all our al cheits are followed immediately by a word of hope: Ya’aleh—“They will rise up.”  Ya’aleh enkateinu me’erev—“May our yearnings rise above the shadows,” our machzor translates the final verse of this piyut.  Our future can be better than our past.  We know we can do better, and rise above what we have become.  We begin with vidui and, from there, we rise up.

For all his outrage at the present state of affairs, the furious prophet Isaiah in our Haftarah reading also takes this view—that we can turn things around.  He says it will take more than mere confession, though; more than mere yearning.  Isaiah cautions against pious posturing and virtue signalling, urging us instead to imagine, in Altman’s words, “a commonality of human experience.”  Sitting at the table with the starving.  Someone else is praying for the things you take for granted! Isaiah cries, in his own compelling words.  The human experiment has resulted in injustice!  We fast today, but we’ll be eating again tomorrow; not so, for the truly hungry in our society.  We abstain from work today, without fear of retribution or loss of income; not so, for the day labourer, who lacks such freedom, discretion, and security.  Real change will come when we share our bread with the hungry, Isaiah says, and take the homeless poor into our homes.  A commonality of human experience!  So hard!  But if the human prophet can imagine it, maybe the human project can achieve it. 

These days of repentance—their words, imagery, and prophecies—bring the starving, praying children to our table of plenty, the day labourer to our boardroom, the refugee to our fancy beachfront home.  They hold up a mirror to societal failures, insensitivity, misplaced values, and lack of vision.  But they also remind us that the human experiment is not yet over.  Time may be running out, the gates may indeed be closing, but there is still room for teshuvah—a turning around.  There is still capacity in the human mind to imagine differently.  There is still time for ya’aleh—rising above what we have become.  And even on those days when the news headlines make us lose faith in ourselves—lose faith in humanity to make it out of this epic experiment alive—we mustn’t throw in the towel because we also have this day, the day of Yom Kippur, on which we are reminded of God’s faith in us—God’s faith in the human imagination, and in our turning.

Where, on this day, do we learn of God’s faith in humanity?  In none other than the most beloved story told on these High Holy Days: the Book of Jonah, read on Yom Kippur Afternoon, right in the middle of the Day of Atonement.  The Jonah story is our pivot point—our turnaround—because it reminds us of God’s faith in humanity, when we ourselves may have given up hope in human betterment.

At the beginning of the Jonah story, we get the sense that Jonah—like our jaded selves—has read too many depressing news headlines.  God calls on him to go and alert the sinful society of Nineveh that God’s judgment is coming and that they have, thus far, not measured up; that they need to change their ways.  But Jonah isn’t interested.  He runs away from God, avoiding God’s call.  Lacking faith in human betterment, Jonah wants no part of this lost cause—this futile venture. 

And yet, after a dramatic series of events, eventually Jonah obliges, because God was kind enough to save his life for just this mission.  So Jonah goes to Nineveh and issues a warning that the city, he says, will soon be overthrown for all its sins.  And what do the Ninevites do?  They prove Jonah’s skepticism wrong and reward God’s faith in humanity.  Vayikr’u tzom, va’yilb’shu sakim mig’dolim v’ad k’tanim—they called for a fast, and great and small alike exchanged their clothing for sackcloth.  Even the king, we’re told, “rose from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes.  Vayazek vayomer b’Ninveh—and he cried out to all of Nineveh, decreeing: “Let every person turn back from their evil ways and from he-chamas—the theft—that is “on their hands.”  To Jonah’s dismay, the Divine punishment was not carried out against the Ninevites.  God saw their turning and lifted the decree. 

The world’s inequity can be righted.  Even the world’s most powerful can remove their cloak, rise from their thrones, and sit for a time in sackcloth and ash alongside the smallest among us—just long enough to imagine a commonality of experience; long enough to realise that someone might be praying for what they take for granted.  It may not be “theft” to have something others don’t have—be it food, freedom, health, or safety.  We didn’t steal these things.  But in taking them for granted, we forget to help others attain them too, and in this we risk robbing them of hope that things might change.  Perhaps we rob God, too, of hope in the human experiment—Divine faith in humanity to blossom and become something greater than we are. 

Like Jonah, we may be weary of the headlines—of how very much we’ve gotten wrong and how hard it would be to make it right.  But Yom Kippur comes each year to remind us that God still has faith in us to turn things around—to make teshuvah.  That societies can repent and better themselves, if only each of us just worked on stretching our imagination.  This is something we can do even in lockdown!  Let’s try it and see what changes… when we imagine the group of starving children at our dinner table as we pop our leftovers into the microwave.  When we imagine the Covid patient on a ventilator, as we reach to remove our mask.  When we imagine Isaiah’s “homeless poor” sitting in our garden, as we clean out our pantry.  When we imagine the Afghan woman in a burqa staring at our closet, as we decide what to wear on our daily walk.

Someone else is praying for what we take for granted.  So let’s see what happens when we imagine them and their prayers—not every moment of the day, but a few more moments of each day.  Then perhaps we’ll see like the prophet.  Then perhaps our yearnings will rise up.  Then perhaps we’ll prove ourselves worthy of God’s faith in us.  Then perhaps we’ll create a fairer world and a better way of living in it, for all of humanity.  May we never take this vision for granted, for someone else, somewhere else, is surely praying for it, right this very moment.

G’mar tov.


Wed, 6 December 2023 23 Kislev 5784