Erev Yom Kippur / Kol Nidre 2019: Good Omens

It is the ultimate cosmic battle that will determine the future of humanity and of our world. Light versus darkness. Good versus evil. The faithful remnant versus the doomed and the damned.

It permeates millennia of apocalyptic literature, Jewish and Christian alike. It inspires our contemporary culture and the television shows that capture our attention, from Game of Thrones to Good Omens. And it encourages some among us to commit unspeakable crimes.

The battle of Armageddon – or Har Meggido, in the Hebrew – will be, for some, a cleansing – and for others a catastrophe. But it is always inevitable. It is always black and white. It is always clear who ought to win.

Except – except that it really isn’t. For all that we are enthralled, and often terrified, by the notion of this ultimate battle, this is not the zero-sum game it purports to be. It is not so clear. It is not black and white. And, in reality, it is not even out there in the world.

Armageddon is an imagined physical manifestation of an eternal battle that rages within each of us. It is the yetzer ha-tov versus the yetzer ha-ra. In English, we translate that as the good inclination versus the evil inclination – though it’s far more nuanced than that.

And it is never a final showdown. It is a constant, life-long struggle to balance these two natures of our characters. The passionate against the pure. The safe against the risky. The parochial versus the universal. The need we have to protect ourselves, and the command we hear to care for others.

Every single day, we make our choices. Every Yom Kippur, we face their consequences.

The truth is, nuance and balance are hard. If we could live in a world of black and white, truth verses falsehood, good versus bad, life would be so much easier. We crave simplicity and order, the pure and the concrete.

And the craving is understandable. Our world today is complicated beyond our comprehension – and so much of it is terrifying. And so, very often, the craving drives us to tackle the complexities and challenges of life by over-simplifying them, and zeroing out the shades of grey that are the hallmark of human life.

Ironically, a work of science fiction has shown us how to cope with a world of fact.

The book – and now television mini-series – “Good Omens” is the perfect antidote to this simplistic way of looking at our world. Authors Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett have done the opposite of what we naturally tend to do. They have taken a very simple, black-and-white, good-and-bad notion of Armageddon — and made it complex, difficult, and much more human.

Here’s the thing about Armageddon. You start with the presumption that all the angels are good – especially the archangels closest to God – and that all the demons are bad. That’s the least you can expect from a proper apocalypse, right?

But the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley are totally unexpected. From the day that Crowley turned into a snake and temped Eve and Adam into eating that apple, the day that Aziraphale had to evict the first two humans from the Garden of Eden for daring to eat from tree of the knowledge of good and evil – from that day onward, the two of them became cohorts, partners, and friends.

They both have known humanity from the beginning. And their relationships with humans show just how complex our mortal world really is.

Aziraphale, as an angel, believes that any race that can create beautiful music and art and literature, and the sumptuous food he savors, has to be good at base. To Aziraphale, as the story goes, “Evil always contains the seeds of its own destruction. No matter how well-planned, how foolproof an evil plan, no matter how apparently successful it may seem upon the way, in the end it will founder on the rocks of iniquity and vanish.”

And since humans have lived this long, we can’t be so bad, can we?

Yet Aziraphale – even though he lives on earth — tends to almost a monastic life inside a dusty old bookstore. He’s fussy and self-indulgent. And being an angel, he is sometimes oblivious to the trouble we cause and the destruction we can create.

Crowley, on the other hand, has no illusions about us humans. As a demon, he thinks of us the way a demon should:

“Nothing he could think up,” the story goes, “was half as bad as the stuff they thought up themselves. They seemed to have a talent for it . . . They were born into a world that was against them in a thousand little ways, and then devoted most of their energies to making it worse.”

“They’ve got what we lack,” Crowley thought to himself. “They’ve got imagination.”

And yet, for every Spanish Inquisition, when Crowley goaded humanity into indulging in our basest behavior, he rather liked people – and abhorred the murder of children.

Over the centuries, the angel and the demon, the story goes, “realize[d] they have far more in common with their immediate opponents than their remote allies. It meant a tacit non-interference in certain of each other’s activities. It made certain that while neither really won, also neither really lost.”

Because, after all, they thought: “the world was an amazing interesting place which they both wanted to enjoy for as long as possible.”

So when word comes down that the anti-Christ has been delivered from hell and the Archangels of heaven have set the stage for Armageddon, they decide to pair up and stop the destruction of the world.

Now, I hate spoilers as much as the next person. So I’ll leave you to ponder how they try to do it, and whether they succeed. But – in the process — there’s one important and rather astonishing lesson that we humans learn about this good versus evil thing:

The forces of light turn out to be Aziraphale AND Crowley – the ones who are close to us, who care about us, who are willing to work with the complexities of human life, rather than reduce it to meaningless simplicity.

The forces of darkness are the Archangels AND the creatures of the lowest depths. They are ones that are far removed from us and our daily struggles. They are the ones who are determined to tear us apart – or make us tear each other apart – even to the ends of the earth.

Here’s what we learn from Aziraphale and Crowley’s example:

The closer we are to each other, and the more we understand what we have in common, then the easier it will be to work together. More than that: the closer each of us is to what’s inside of us, and the more we practice the balancing act between the two inclinations that are always tugging us one way or the other, then the easier it will be to be a true partner in the work of sustaining the world.

Here are three ways I think we can prevent the daily Armageddons of this world, so that we can work together, to live together, in an environment that is complex, and contradictory, and more than a little bit scary.

I’ve taken them from a couple of recent New York Times columns by David Brooks. Here, he writes about fighting the ideology of hate, and dispelling cynicism and despair about our future, by working together — even as demons and angels occasionally do.

 First: We have to win the battle of pluralism over “essentialism.”

Essentialism is when the identity of an individual or group is over-simplified to one defining and “essential” characteristic. It’s usually focused on someone’s race, and it’s always the mark of a lesser creature. Both the Archangels and the devils who are trying to bring about Armageddon see the human race as “essentially” vile, inferior, and easily goaded into racial animus and xenophobia.

Brooks argues for pluralism, which teaches us, as he writes:Human differences make life richer and more interesting. We treasure members of all races and faiths for what they bring to the mosaic.”

The Jewish tradition teaches us the same thing. The rabbis of the Mishnah write:

“A man may stamp out many coins with one die and they are all alike. But the Holy One of Blessing stamped each human with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his fellow – so that each of us may say, ‘For my sake the world was created.’”[1]

Second: We have to win the battle of unity over separatism.

The Archangels believe in what is essentially racial purity. They castigate Aziraphale for his relationships with, and his empathy for, humans. They believe the universe is “healthier” (in Brooks’s words) when races – such as angels and humans – live separately. They believe that the universe is “diseased” when races mix. In unity, Brooks writes, “We’re one people.”

And again, our Jewish tradition teaches the same thing. Unlike all the other creatures who came forth, from the beginning, two by two, humans all descend from Adam, so that no one person can say to another, “My father is greater than yours.”[2]

Third: We have to win the battle of opportunity over Darwinism.

In “Good Omens,” there is a sense of superiority in both heaven and hell. It’s a belief that humanity will ultimately be destroyed because it is inferior – though the archangels, in particular, see the need to help us along the path to our final destruction. Perhaps, as Brooks contends, that’s really a feeling of insecurity rather than self-confidence – that humanity may reach up and vie with supposedly pure and perfect creatures.

The rabbis teach us this in still another story of man’s creation[3].

When God decided to create humanity, the angels divided up into camps – some for and some against. The angels that represented Lovingkindness said: “Let Adam be created because humanity will do acts of love!” But the angels representing Truth disagreed, declaring, “Do not let Adam be created, because the human is all lies!” The angels of Justice then spoke up and said: “Let Adam be created because the human will do acts of justice!” But the angels of Peace said no, “Do not let Adam be created, because humanity is all strife!”

As the angels continued to argue, God fashioned humanity from the earth anyway and said to them: “Why are you still arguing? Adam has already been created!”

God created humanity to give us the opportunity to prove Lovingkindness and Justice right — and Truth and Peace wrong. Opportunity, writes David Brooks, means that everyone gets a chance to prove themselves.

Aziraphale and Crowley, angel and demon, were given the opportunity to prove that humanity could sustain itself and prove its worth, even against the most powerful forces in the universe.

And that’s all we’re asking for tonight – right? God! Please give us the opportunity to prove to You that we are worthy of Your trust!

Forgive us for those times when we succumb fully to our yetser hara, when we neglect to treat your world and your creatures with the care we give ourselves.

Guide us in the wisdom of the yetser ha-tov, which shows us the beauty and healing we are capable of bringing to your world.

Open our eyes to the reality that life is never simple, and that there is never only one right answer.

Help us to recognize, O God, that the world is not pure. It is not black and white. It is not static. And it can never be. As David Brooks writes, “the only thing that’s static is death.”

And so, tonight, we focus on life, knowing that every life is made better when we work together. When we look beneath the superficial differences of race or nation or religion, and recognize the fundamental, God-given spark of life that makes all humanity one.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. And let us say together: Amen.


©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

[2] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

[3] Bereshit Rabbah 8:5

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