Vincent and Jacob – Shabbat Vayetze, Friday, December 6, 2019

He is considered by many to be the greatest artist of modern times – maybe the greatest of all time. Vincent Van Gogh is famed for his inventiveness, his unique use of color and shade and palette. He is also known for his chronic depression, his loneliness, and his death – thought by many to have been a suicide.

When you think of Van Gogh, you think the psychedelic dreaminess of Starry Night or the imaginative and colorful depictions of landscapes and shepherds and sunflowers. But Don and I had a chance to learn a lot more about Van Gogh last week at an exhibit at the Columbia Museum of Art.

The exhibit focused on the many other artists whose work influenced Van Gogh. Impressionists, yes – but also traditional portrait painters across France who captured the essence of the human form. Landscape artists from the Dutch school, who drew in darkness and shadows. Japanese woodblock printers whose gift for story-telling guided his own.

A dozen of Van Gogh’s own works were included. None was particularly famous. No starry night. No sunflowers. Only a couple were recognizably his, including one self-portrait in which both ears were still intact. There were pen and ink drawings, and what looked like studies of other artists. The point was to show how Van Gogh became the Van Gogh we know.

The display included insightful historical and artistic commentary on each work and each artist, provided by authors of a New York Times best-seller on Van Gogh and his life.

It was, in essence, a narrative, through which you could see the little bits and pieces he picked up from all of these artists and how he merged them into a style that was unmistakably his own.

But the exhibit was much more than a display by and about an artist. It was the story of a human being. A man both brilliant and deeply flawed. A man with insecurities, familial fallouts, and a false belief that he could manage his troubled life better all by himself.

And it occurred to me that this story is a parallel to the tale of our patriarch Jacob, which is at the heart of the Torah portions for this Shabbat and next week’s. Well, it’s a parallel up to a point – when the choices they made sealed their fates one way or another.

Like Jacob, Vincent Van Gogh was born into a family of believers.

Both Vincent’s grandfather – also named Vincent – and his father Theodorus were ministers. Jacob, of course, was the grandson of Abraham, with whom God made an eternal covenant and for whom God provided a land and descendants to inherit that land. His father Isaac literally followed in Abraham’s footsteps, sojourning in the same places and re-digging the same wells.

Vincent thought at one point he’d be a minister, too. His parents even paid for his lessons to gain entry to the official ministry. But he never made it through. He rejected mainstream church theology and practice. As he wrote to his brother Theo: “”I find Father and Mother’s sermons and ideas about God, people, morality and virtue a lot of stuff and nonsense.”

For a while he became an itinerant evangelist in a mining town. But after just one contract, the folks there apparently had had enough of his bizarre ideas and his rough personality. And that was the end of his career in ministry.

As for Jacob, well, as this week’s Torah portion show, he too had ideas about God that went far afield from that of his parents and grandparents. In the famous scene with the dream of Jacob’s ladder and the angels moving up and down from heaven and Jacob’s astonishment that God could be in such an ordinary place in the wilderness and God’s promise of land and protection – with all that, we sometimes skip over what Jacob said in response:

“Jacob then made a vow, saying, ‘If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—the Lord shall be my God.  And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.”[1]

God made the promises. Jacob wouldn’t believe them. He had to see the results before he would commit to the relationship.

Both men seemed to suffer from a lack of humility. But that hurt their relationships with their families as much as with God.

Jacob, as we know, was turned out of his parents’ house for cheating his brother and hoodwinking his father.

He later worked in the family business of his father-in-law Laban. But that relationship ended when he fled the farm, taking with him what he felt was owed to him for his years of service, including Laban’s daughters as his wives.

Vincent didn’t do any better. His parents despaired of his erratic behavior and his inability to hold down a job, much less decide on a career. Over the years, he went back to live with them, on and off. But they turned responsibility for him over to his brother Theo – who was settled and successful.

Vincent moved frequently, staying with family or friends and taking up lessons or appointments –but never for very long. Then he’d retreat into social isolation. The evolution of the images that would become the hallmark of his work was the result of lonely surveillance. He came to see himself as the solitary shepherd or the lone farmer depicted in several of his major works.

Both Vincent and Jacob had families that loved them and sometimes despaired of them. But they lived inside themselves. They trusted only themselves.  And they did become successful. Jacob amassed a great fortune and a large household. Vincent, when he had finally absorbed what everyone else could teach him, began painting with astonishing and distinctive brilliance that no one could match.

But a life spent living in his own head took its toll on Vincent. The fears of mental illness that his parents had expressed years earlier became reality. In late 1888, when Van Gogh was only 35, he began having delusions and psychotic attacks. That’s when he cut off his ear.

By the next year, when he was actually becoming popular and successful, depression took over and he pronounced himself a failure. He continued to work but lost not only his passion but his will to live. The one doctor he allowed to try and treat him finally gave up. In the summer of 1890, Vincent Van Gogh shot himself in the stomach, and died two days later, at the age of 37.

And Jacob?

I think there’s a reason why the Torah portions are separated the way they are, between this week and next week. Things could have ended badly for Jacob this week, as he was being chased down by his irate father-in-law. As this week’s portion closes, he manages to negotiate a peaceful separation.

That peaceful separation showed God that something was changing in Jacob – a maturity, a sense of social and familial responsibility. In the closing verses this week, we read:

“Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him. When he saw them, Jacob said, ‘This is God’s camp.’ So he named that place Mahanaim.”[2]

In Hebrew, that means two camps – his and God’s, now working as one. And it signals to us what’s going to happen in next week’s portion.

There, Jacob is on his way to face his brother Esau and own up to the grievous harm he has caused. That night, Jacob has the struggle with the angel in the middle of the stream. Maybe he’s struggling with his own demons as well. But Jacob succeeds where Vincent could not.

He is ready, willing and able to accept both the rewards and the punishments of that life brings. He makes the commitment of faith that God has long been looking for. So Jacob can strive with the angel and survive. He rightfully demands a blessing. And the blessing is his new name – Israel.

Here’s what I take away from the story of these two lives juxtaposed with each other.

The truth is that no one can live a totally solitary life – out in a field or in one’s own mind.

The truth is that no one can survive without mutual love and trust and support of other people.

Vincent refused all of that – or simply could not give it. And in the end, it killed him.

Jacob finally realized and acknowledged the need for love and trust and faith. And Jacob became Israel.

Many of you in the sanctuary tonight know this to be true.

A lot of us try to shoulder our troubles alone. We think: I don’t want to be a burden. Or: I’m a grown-up, I can handle this. Sometimes we can. But sometimes we can’t. And it takes a lot of courage to admit we need help – and then accept it.

That’s one of the reasons for Temple Beth Israel’s existence. There’s no shame in asking for support: We are a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. It’s our mitzvah, and our blessing, to help each other.

We are here when you need care and consolation. We are here to help you celebrate your joys. And, as your rabbi, I always try to make sure you are never alone to face whatever life throws at you. The lonely shepherd or the solitary farmer may be a captivating image in a painting. But it’s no way to go through life.

As we witness the evolution of Jacob into Israel, we recognize how much we need one another.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.



©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] Gen: 28: 20-22

[2] Gen. 32:2-3.


“Let There Be Light” – Shabbat Bereshit and the First Yahrzeit for the Victims at Tree of Life , Friday, October 25, 2019

via “Let There Be Light” – Shabbat Bereshit and the First Yahrzeit for the Victims at Tree of Life , Friday, October 25, 2019

“Let There Be Light” – Shabbat Bereshit and the First Yahrzeit for the Victims at Tree of Life , Friday, October 25, 2019

A year ago, tomorrow morning, as I was leaving here after adult Bible study, I got a text from a congregant who wanted to know if I’d heard any news. No, I texted back – why? There was a shooting at a synagogue in Squirrel Hill, he replied. And it is very bad.

Since I have been the rabbi here at Temple Beth Israel, I have had to respond – in prayer and in preaching – to way too many mass murders in this country, from Sandy Hook Elementary School to the Orlando Night Club to the Las Vegas Strip. But this time it was different. This time it was personal.

Eleven Jews murdered at Sabbath prayer – simply because they were Jews. Elderly people sitting in the back of the pews, as they had, faithfully, every week for decades. In Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood we all know well. Altoona’s Jewish community has deep ties there. Many of us have family there and some grew up there. Some of us shop there on a regular basis. At least one of our couples was married at Tree of Life, and another among us taught Religious School there. These eleven people, and those who were wounded – including UPMC chaplain Dan Leger, whose colleagues are here tonight – could have been our family, our friends.

In Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood we all know well. A center of bustling Jewish life for generations. A place where people from all different faiths and cultures live as neighbors. It is literally Mister Rogers Neighborhood – as Fred Rogers lived not far from the synagogue that remains closed, surrounded by security fences and make-shift shrines with symbols and messages of love and support.

This Shabbat marks an ending and a beginning for the survivors and for the families of those murdered. In Jewish mourning tradition, we set aside a full year from the time someone is buried as a time of special remembrance.

Children have a particular responsibility to say Kaddish, a statement of faith in God in memory of a loved one, for a full year. Here at Temple Beth Israel, we read the names of congregants and loved ones who have passed away for a full year, so that any time the family comes to worship during that time, they can be assured their loved one’s name will be shared.

For some of the mourners at Tree of Life, the turning of a year may mark a time of closure. We know that some have begun returning to their lives, though they will never be the same. Some who have gone through grief counseling have found solace in the arms of neighbors and friends and others who have suffered as well.

It doesn’t mean that we forget. We never forget. But we come to this day changed by the distance from our immediate shock and horror and fear and grief.

We at Temple Beth Israel were so afraid a year ago. We knew that the accused murderer in Pittsburgh had been motivated and inspired by other mass murderers around the world who had posted manifestos on social networking spewing hatred at Jews, blacks, Muslims, and other minorities. We needed to mourn. But we also needed to know that we could be safe here. And you took care of us. Our friends in the interfaith community embraced us, and hundreds of you were part of a magnificent service of remembrance and hope at Zion Lutheran Church in Hollidaysburg.

And we took action to protect ourselves. Security briefings from the Department of Homeland Security. Procedures for emergencies. Hardened security for the building. We still want to be what the words from the prophet Isaiah chiseled on the front of our building tell us we ought to be: A House of Prayer for All Peoples. But we are also careful, as we have to be.

According to an annual survey of Jewish opinion in the United States conducted this summer by the American Jewish Committee, since the slaughter at Tree of Life, sixty-five percent of American Jews feel less secure as a Jew in the U.S. than they did a year ago.

And with good reason: According to the FBI, antisemitic incidents in this country rose nearly SIXTY percent last year, compared to the year before. Sixty percent. And, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups operating across American last year rose to a record high of 1,020 – the fourth straight year of heightened, coordinated hate.

“Hate has frayed the social fabric of our country,” said Richard Cohen, past president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Knitting it back together will take the efforts of all segments of our society – our families, our schools, our houses of worship, our civic organizations and the business community. Most of all, it will take leadership – political leadership – that inspires our country to live up to its highest values.”

Since Cohen specifically mentioned houses of worship, let’s work on the healing process tonight, and let’s start with Scripture and our Jewish tradition.

I mentioned that this is a time of endings and beginnings. It is a new beginning on the Jewish calendar – the Sabbath on which we renew our reading of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses), starting with its very first verses and the story of Creation.

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים ׀ אֶת־הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם:[1]

God created Adam in the Divine Image; in the likeness of God was Adam created; male and female did God create.

Unlike all of the other creatures created before humanity, who were formed two by two so that they could reproduce, God created only one first human – Adam – fashioned from the adamah, from the dust of the earth. Adam was created both male and female, and only later did God split the two sides apart.

But why were we created differently? Why do we all descend from one human rather than two?

Because, as the rabbis taught us:

“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.’”[2]

Each of us carries the stamp of God. Each of us is equally worthy – not just of God’s love but of each other’s love. It doesn’t matter where you come from, or what language you speak, or what color your skin is, or how and where you pray. We are all created equal and all originate from one being – so that nobody can say: My ancestor was greater than yours.

That makes every life as precious as every other life. And every life to come. In the next generation, when Cain kills Abel, the Torah tells us:

י וַיֹּאמֶר מֶה עָשִׂיתָ קוֹל דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ צֹעֲקִים אֵלַי מִן־הָאֲדָמָה:[3]

God said, “What have you done? The voice of the bloods of your brother cry out to me from the earth!”

Not “the blood of your brother” but “the bloods (plural) of your brother” – because, as the rabbis teach, it wasn’t just one person that Cain killed.

It was all the children who would never be born – untold generations that would never have a chance to do God’s work on earth.

These verses from the first chapters of Genesis teach us of the preciousness of every life. Of the equal value of every life. Of the untold potential of every life. This Divine message is engraved in the act of Creation itself. And anything we humans have done that is contrary to this message is a shanda, a disgrace – a show of contempt for God and God’s plan for this world.

We live in a world where dark forces far from God’s message surrounds us: people seething with hatred and perceived grudges that are multiplied in the shadowy corners of the internet. Professor Deborah Lipstadt, who has spent decades fighting antisemitism, wrote this week that “this oldest hatred continues to grow, evolve, and develop” across the political spectrum.

“Today’s antisemites,” she wrote, “including those who might have previously never dared to publicly utter their hateful thoughts, feel emboldened to do so. In fact, they feel more than emboldened.” [4]

But then, Professor Lipstadt said something that took me aback. She wrote: “As much as I worry about what the antisemites might do to Jews, I worry even more about what we might do to ourselves because of antisemitism.”

And here’s what she meant:

When we define ourselves as Jews, our motivation should not be to counter the toxicity of antisemitism. It should be because we are proud of our history, our heritage, and our mission on earth. It should be because we truly rejoice in Torah and mitzvot, in holy days and festival days, and in this Sabbath day – which, like humanity, is part of the fabric of Creation itself.

It’s what Professor Lipstadt called living Jewishly for the joy, and not for the oy.

“While we stand guard,” she wrote, “and we would be crazy not to – we do so in order to be free to celebrate Jewish life in all its manifestations.”

But here’s the part of her message I really wanted to share with you tonight:

“We are bearers of a magnificent tradition, one that expresses itself in religious, intellectual, philanthropic, artistic, communal, and political contexts. Despite the best efforts of so many generations of non-Jews to harm, kill, and even annihilate us, we celebrate the multi-faceted tradition that is our and all it has given to the world. We do so, not because of the attempt to destroy us, but in spite of it.”

We must be Jewish – in every way we express Judaism – not because we are victims but because we are Jews. We gather here for Shabbat tonight, mindful of what happened a year ago that shattered our world. But we gather every Friday night because we are Jews. Because the Sabbath is God’s gift to us.

It is the culmination of the act of Creation, which began with the light of a Divine spark that is embedded in each and every one of us. It is a foretaste of the World To Come – a world of peace and of freedom and, yes, of joy.  It is a gift that we share tonight with our friends and our neighbors as a thank-you for their love for us.

Our unity in this sanctuary tonight is a testament to the way God intended for humanity to live in this world. As the Psalmist wrote:

 זֶה־הַיּוֹם עָשָׂה יְהֹוָה נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בוֹ:[5]

This is the day that God has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Genesis 1:27

[2] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

[3] Genesis 4:10.

[4] Deborah E. Lipstadt, “The Best Way to Fight Anti-Semitism? Jewish Joy,” Forward, October 23, 2019.

[5] Psalm 118:24

Yom Kippur Morning 2019: Seeing is Believing

All Barb Zaplotney wanted was for someone to see her. To see HER. Not her wheelchair. Not her disability. To see HER. Barb. The woman who was paralyzed in a car accident a dozen years ago, her spinal cord severed at the T-10 vertebra.

That’s all. Was that too much to ask? Was it too much to ask that some of the staff at the rehab facility stop referring to her as “T-10” and call her by name?

“I felt like they only saw my diagnosis and didn’t see me as a human being,” she said recently at a program at Saint Francis University. “We are not our diagnoses.”

Barb Zaplotney is not alone, though over the years she often felt like it. None of us likes to be ignored. None of us wants to be stereotyped. None of us deserves to be “essentialized” – a word I used last night. “Essentialized” means seeing another person as “essentially” something “other” – something inferior. Broken. Disabled. Unworthy of our attention.

Every one of us needs to be seen and appreciated for who we are. Every one of us yearns for connections to other people – dynamic relationships that make us feel loved and special. And every one of us, at one time or another, has been frustrated trying to make that connection.

Why is it so hard? What’s the missing ingredient? It’s not a secret. It’s looking – really looking – into another person’s eyes.

Seeing another person – really looking at them – used to be considered an essential part of building relationships. It still is. Think of a baby staring at the face of a mom or dad – and breaking out in a broad grin, and giggling just at the site of them. That’s our natural instinct as human beings. But it’s an instinct that somehow decays over time.

It used to be so natural to smile at a stranger on the street and have them smile back. Not any more. More often than not, I find that people look away, or move away, as quickly as they can. It’s like they equate seeing with spying. It’s uncomfortable – or downright creepy.

Even in situations where you’d think eye contact would be essential – it doesn’t happen. When’s the last time you checked out at Wal-Mart and had the checker greet you and look you in the eye and smile and acknowledge that they are there to serve you?

Or do you just skip the whole personal interaction thing and go to the self-check line instead?

In a world where so many of us have trouble shifting our eyes from our cell-phone screens – where texting and messaging has replaced actual one-on-one, face-to-face conversation — we’ve gotten out of practice of making basic eye contact. Of being able to read non-verbal signals that can tell us how a person is really feeling. Is she looking thin and tired? Is he having trouble walking? Is her smile touched with sadness? You can’t get that out of text. You can only get it by lifting your eyes and seeing.

But we don’t. And I think that’s really sad.

So today, a day when we feel that our very lives depend on our ability to make powerful connections and mend important relationships – with God and with one another – using our God-given gift of sight becomes more important than ever.

The fact is that each of us has an infinite capability for goodness that we can visualize – and then actualize – through this gift of sight. It’s so powerful that it’s highlighted in a prayer that traditionally recited right before Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur Eve. That prayer, T’filah Zakah, focuses on how we have mis-used our limbs and our organs to hurt other people. It forces us to evaluate ourselves, head to toe, and recognize how much damage we have done – and how we ought to use those same parts of our body to repent, to mend and to heal.

This prayer happens not to be included in the prayer book we use here. But I’ve been working through it this year. And here’s how the operative part of it goes:

בָּרָֽאתָ בִּי עֵינַֽיִם, וּבָהֶם חוּשׁ הָרְאוּת, לִרְאוֹת בְּהֶם מַה שֶׁכָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה . . .

You have gifted me with eyes, and with them the sense of sight, so that I might see through them what is written in Your Torah, imbuing them with sanctity as they look upon every holy word.

We focus our eyes too much, says the prayer, on objects we covet, or people we belittle – when we ought to be concentrating our sight on the mitzvot of the Torah that You’ve given us in love.

And what is in the Torah that’s so important? As it turns out, the gift of sight itself is a prominent theme of our Scriptural readings throughout these Days of Awe.

Remember the story of Abraham and the binding of Isaac that we read on Rosh Hashanah? Twice, the Torah tells us Vayisa Avraham et-einav: “Abraham lifted his eyes.” The first time, we read that, vayar et ha-making mey-ra-khok –he saw the place from afar “– meaning, the mountaintop where God directed him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac.[1] The second time, we read, va’yar v-hinei ayil, “behold there was a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns,” whom he sacrificed instead of Isaac.[2]

Sight is so crucial in this story that Abraham names the spot Adonai YirehGod sees. Without using his gift of sight, Abraham would never have proven his worth to God. He would never have seen his son inherit his relationship with God. Had Abraham not lifted his eyes, the Jewish people would not exist at all.

The gift of sight here signifies the gift of faith – the faith of a man who believed that God would redeem them both. And the faith of God in the man that God had chosen.

On Yom Kippur, this gift of faith is tested. Today, God demands that we lift our eyes and witness our betrayal of one another. Our prayers require us to look at the brokenness of cities, the pollution of the air, water and land; to see the way we make weapons of war – fashioning spears out of pruning hooks. We acknowledge we have shut our eyes to our neighbors. The poor beggar. The homeless veteran. The abused child. And, yes, the woman in a wheelchair who wants only for others to see her for who she is.

In this afternoon’s Torah reading from the Holiness Code of Leviticus 19, God demands:

וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל וְיָרֵאתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה:

Do not place a stumbling block before a person who is blind; but revere Your God, for I am Adonai.

Now, blindness can be literal, and physical. But blindness can also be ignorance, or foolishness, or naivete. A stumbling block can be a physical barrier. But also it can be abuse or manipulation or exploitation by someone who is deliberately taking advantage, or inflicting cruelty – and then ignoring the consequences.

Either way, God insists that the iveir be treated with respect. Someone who cannot see must not be abused by someone who chooses not to see.

And in this afternoon’s Haftarah, we learn of the prophet Jonah, one who chose not to see.

In this story, God has pronounced the punishment of destruction on the wicked people of Nineveh. But then it all changes:

וַיַּרְא הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת־מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם כִּי־שָׁבוּ מִדַּרְכָּם הָרָעָה . . .

God SAW what the people were doing – that they had turned away from their evil ways – and God renounced the punishment planned for them and did not carry it out.[3]

But rather than raising his eyes, as Abraham did, Jonah refused to see. He already had “essentialized” the people of Nineveh as evil and unworthy. He ran away, into the wilderness. And the story ends with God chastising his prophet for his lack of care and concern for other human beings. Care he might have felt had he simply been willing to turn his eyes on the city – as God did – and look at the people and see how they had changed.

Do we look? Or do we look away? Are we strong enough to not to “essentialize” and stereotype, and make presumptions – but, rather, to see each human being as uniquely created in the image of God? Are we strong enough to look in each other’s eyes and see, in the other, the reflection of God we see in ourselves.

Because, if we are, we will be compelled to behave with kindness and care. And that is exactly what God teaches us through this verse in the Book of Proverbs:

תְּנָה בְנִי לִבְּךָ לִי וְעֵינֶיךָ דְּרָכַי תִּצְּרְֹנָה:

Give your mind to me, my son; Let your eyes watch My ways.[4]

Do we look? – or do we look away? Are we strong enough to take on the responsibility God gave us, or not?

The movie producer, Brian Grazer, has just written a whole best-selling book about this, called Face to Face. His premise is very simple.

He writes:

“In a world where our attention is too often focused downward or elsewhere, simply lifting your eyes to meet another’s gaze can be transformative… (When you) hold eye contact, notice how your interactions change. And watch as it makes others feel more respected, heard, seen, and valued.”

That is what the gift of sight can do. And you don’t have to be sick or tired or in a wheelchair to feel the marvelous gift of another’s eyes seeing you for who and what you are. You just have to be . . . human.

In this morning’s Torah reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, God uses the language of sight to remind us of our obligations to ourselves, and to others:

 רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם אֶת־הַחַיִּים וְאֶת־הַטּוֹב וְאֶת־הַמָּוֶת וְאֶת־הָרָע

Behold! See! I lay out before you today life and good, or death and evil, blessing and curse – that you may choose life — and live.[5]

Every single one of us has the power to bless others as we would wish to be blessed. To value others as we wish to be valued. To see others as we would wish to be seen. All we need to do is lift our eyes.

Let this gift compel us, through teshuvah, to make this a world we are proud to behold.

And let us say together: Amen.


©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Genesis 22:4

[2] Genesis 22:13

[3] Jonah 3:10

[4] Proverbs 23:26

[5] Deuteronomy 30:19

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