Yom Kippur 5776: Stacey Petersohn

Stacy Petersohn’s Sermon

How many of you have seen Disney’s classic, The Lion King?  How many of you have seen its sequel, Lion King 2, Simba’s Pride?  For those of you who haven’t, Lion King 2 follows the story of the next generation of lions in the pride lands.  Specifically, it follows the story of Kiara, Simba’s daughter, who as a child befriends Kovu, the adopted son of Scar’s wife.  When this friendship is discovered, all of the parents decide it is best to keep the children apart.  This separation is in effect until years later, when Kiara finds herself trapped in a blazing fire, and Kovu rescues her.  Unsure of Kovu’s intentions, Simba brings Kovu back to the site of the fire, now covered in ash.  The area looks desolate, as though nothing will grow there again.  Simba stops at one point, and with his paw, brushes away some of the ash.  Underneath, is a tiny green sprout.  Simba has shown Kovu that even after such awful destruction, life can begin again when it is given the chance to grow.

Over the summer, I was fortunate to take the time to study at the Silicon Valley Beit Midrash, a new program started by a friend of mine, for adults who want to learn Torah, Talmud, and other forms of Jewish text.  One of my teachers, Sam Lebens, brought to our class a piece of Talmud that reminded me of this scene been Simba and Kovu.  In tractate Sotah, Rabbi Chama asks, “What is the mean of the verse, ‘ Acharei Adonai Eloheichem Telchu, You shall follow after Adonai your G-d?’  Is it even possible for a human to follow the Divine Presence?  And there is an earlier verse, ‘Ki Adonai Eloheicha Eish Ochlah Hu, for Adonai your G-d is a consuming fire.’”

Rabbi Chama is pointing out a tension in the book of Deuteronomy.  In chapter 13, the people of Israel are commanded to follow in the footsteps of G-d.  Yet, in chapter 4, G-d is described as a consuming fire.  The question is: does the Torah actually intend for us to also act as a consuming fire?  The simple answer is no.  But if we are supposed to follow in G-d’s footsteps, what does that look like?

The Talmud continues by saying the command is to follow in the attributes of G-d and provides four examples:

  • Just as G-d clothed Adam and Eve’s nakedness, so are we to clothe the naked.
  • Just as G-d visited Abraham when he was sick, so are we to visit the sick.
  • Just as G-d comforted Isaac while he mourned for Abraham, so are we to comfort the mourner.
  • Just as G-d buried Moses when he died, so are we to bury the dead.

On the surface, each of these examples highlights the compassion of G-d for humans, which we are to emulate.  However, each example deserves a closer examination which will reveal something interesting.

In the example of clothing Adam and Eve, they would not have needed clothing if G-d had not placed the temptation of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil into the Garden of Eden.  In the example of visiting Abraham when he was sick, the rabbinic understanding that it was the third day after he had circumcised himself at G-d’s command.  In the case of comforting Isaac after Abraham’s death, not only is G-d the one who brought death upon humans in the beginning of Genesis, but G-d ignores the rest of Abraham’s children.  In the case of burying Moses, G-d is the one who also ordained that Moses would die outside of the land of Israel even though “his eyes had not dimmed, and his natural strength had not left him.”

I do not think that it is an accident that in each of the examples, G-d acts both as a consuming fire and with compassion.  G-d, creating balance in the world, must play both roles. Yet, the Talmud highlights the compassionate part of each of story as the example humans are supposed to follow.  In this sense, humans are literally supposed to follow behind the consuming fire, acting as G-d’s cleanup crew and stacking the balance in favor of compassion.

The examples given in the Talmud are all personal, individual ways in which humans can clean up after G-d and provide more compassion.  However, there are times when G-d is an actual consuming fire.  Natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and wildfires occur in the blink of an eye.  Some of these happen half way across the world, and some of them are right next door.  A select group of people are trained in relief and rescue, first responders to assess the situation and move people to safety.  The rest of us are the second wave of relief, providing supplies, money, and even volunteer efforts to help those affected by these natural disasters to pick up their lives and start again.

Whether on an individual or communal level, we are charged to bring more of G-d’s compassion into the world by coming in after the consuming fire, the moments of harshness and destruction, both great and small.  We are to brush away the ashes, to comfort and help those in need, revealing the tiny, green sprouts of life, giving them a chance to grow.