Updated: Sep 21
Rabbi David Baum
Congregation Shaarei Kodesh 5784/2023
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I remember hearing these words as a child from a famous Sage that always stuck with me: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
That famous Sage I’m referring to, of course, is Yoda from Star Wars. For the purposes of this sermon, I revisited this quote, and like any good rabbi, I sought out commentary on what the Jedi Sage Yoda meant by these words. And wouldn’t you know, there is a Rashi on this line that I found! Well, not exactly Rashi, but I did find a Jedi philosopher who explained the quote:
"When Yoda said that hate leads to suffering, he meant that hatred could be just as destructive to the one who hates as it is to the people he hates. Hatred has a destructive power that can breed more hatred and suffering in the world. As such, it is one of the things that can lead a person to the dark side.”
Who knew such wisdom could be found a long time ago in a galaxy far far away?!?
Now, before you walk out of this sermon (or stop reading and go to the next article), I want to share something: the Jews came up with the ‘dark side’ first, although the Jewish people are still waiting for their Star Wars royalty checks. We call the ‘dark side’ the Yetzer HaRah, or the evil inclination.
Here’s the story, which would make a great movie by the way:
Our tradition teaches us that we are actually born with the Yetzer HaRah, the evil inclination, and it dominates our lives until we are twelve or thirteen, the age of maturity when one becomes a Jewish adult. That’s when the Yetzer HaTov, the good inclination, enters into our bodies. At, we must seek the balance between these two sides because even too much of the Yetzer HaTov isn’t good for us either.
The rabbis of the Talmud tell a story when they trapped the yetzer harah in a cage for three days and gave the yetzer hatov free reign in the world. But during those three days, the rabbis could not find a fresh egg in all of Israel because along with hatred and anger, so was the inclination to reproduce.
They realized that they couldn’t kill the yetzer harah, because it would mean the end of humanity. Their solution was to blind the evil inclination and set it free in the world.
Unfortunately, it seems like the Yetzer HaRah, much like hatred, has gotten its sight back, and even worse, it has blinded so many in our country where they can only see the darkness of hatred.
None of us are immune to the darkness of hatred, even if we don’t leave our homes. During the early parts of the pandemic, when I rarely left our home, I posted something online about Judaism and hate where I called out white supremacists. A stranger commented, “Watch your six.” I had no idea what that meant until a friend contacted me: Do you know that someone just threatened your life? ‘Watch your six’ is military code for watch your back.”
I thought to myself, would this person actually hurt me because of a post on Facebook? The incident opened my eyes to the reality of hate, that it follows us wherever we go.
The High Holy Days begin with the consequences of hatred.
Tisha B’av comes exactly seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah. The High Holy Day season begins on this day of remembrance of the destruction of the Holy Temples and the other tragedies that have befallen our people. From the destruction of our national center, we begin the process of rebuilding our lives and our homes.
During this sad holiday, we ponder the reasons why the Holy Temple was destroyed. On its surface, the Jews were just in the wrong place at the wrong time when Rome was the major empire in the world. But the rabbis told a different story. According to the rabbis, the Holy Temple was destroyed because of something called Sinat Chinam. We translate this phrase as baseless hatred, but as we know, all hatred has a basis. The actual translation should really be gratuitous hatred, or as I like to call it, “Hatred Gone Wild”.
This is the story the rabbis tell: of neighbors insulting neighbors, of extremists taking over and killing others who didn’t believe in the same things they believed in. Jews put ideas and ideologies over people, and this is why the Holy Temple was destroyed. Hate became like a fast-spreading cancer that metastasized and brought down an entire nation.
Last year, our congregation engaged in an initiative through the Anti-Defamation League called Kulanu: Synagogues in Action Against Antisemitism which challenged us to see hatred where it roams freely in our lives: social media and the internet.
The ADL reported the following in their 2023 Online Hate and Harassment Survey, and hate and harassment has skyrocketed for the majority of Americans, and for Jews, members of the LGBTQ+ community, African Americans, and Asian Americans, online harassment has grown even higher.
Hate might begin with a keystroke, but it eventually finds its way into our neighborhoods.
Just last week, I received word from our security professionals that a hate group which I will not name went to homes in the neighborhood across the street from our shul putting antisemitic flyers on all the driveways. I was hoping it wouldn’t make news, not because I didn’t want the world to know, but because I didn’t want to explain yet another incident to our children. Similar incidents have happened repeatedly over the couple of years in Florida as hate grows in the Sunshine State. Antisemitic hate crimes have risen 300% since 2012.
As I thought about this incident, I thought about the perpetrators. What would lead someone to do such a disgusting act? Likely it started on the internet, in dark places like chat rooms where there are few good eyes watching.
But rather than pointing our fingers at the extremists, I think about what social media has done to us, and how we interact with each other. The tool that was supposed to bring us together, has torn us apart. Who in here gets an update on their phones: “watch so and so get DESTROYED!” and revels in joy seeing those whom you would consider your enemy being thoroughly embarrassed on social media?
It is a proven fact that hate and anger drive clicks. The more hateful social media users become, the more money social media companies rake in.
What Judaism teaches us though is that hatred is not an inevitable condition. Hatred is a choice.
Hatred is a story as old as creation. Today is Yom Harat HaOlam, but it’s really the birthday of us, humanity. Today we focus on humanity beyond Adam and Eve. The story of Cain and Abel, am I brother’s keeper. We all know the story, but you’d be surprised with how short it actually is. Just a couple of lines of dialogue, and then, one brother kills the other.
וַיֹּאמֶר יְי אֶל־קַיִן אֵי הֶבֶל אָחִיךָ וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יָדַעְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵר אָחִי אָנֹכִי׃
The LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)
The Midrash fills in the dialogue though: why does Cain respond to God’s question with a question? The midrash says what he really meant was: “God, You are the keeper of all creatures, why are you asking me?” They compare his answer to a thief who stole things at night and got away. In the morning, he is caught and the police ask him where he got the stolen items. The thief answers: I may have stolen the items, but it was your job to protect them, so were sleeping on the job or were you just lazy? Actually, it is your fault the items were stolen, not mine!” In this case, Cain said, “You God created the evil inclination, the yetzer harah, and you didn’t accept my offering, which is why I killed him, and, furthermore, You let me kill him, so actually, come to think of it, Abel’s death is actually Your fault!” (Midrash Tanchuma)
The parable is a story of our everyday lives. When we get into trouble, we often times point fingers at others, sometimes even God, instead of looking in the mirror. Cain deflects blame, much like we do when faced with our own actions.
From this, we learn that humanity begins with responsibility. Only when we take responsibility for ourselves can we hope to make the world a better place.
There is a story of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; you may know him as ‘the rebbe’. When potential converts came to him for a blessing, and advice on what Hebrew name they should choose as they join the Jewish people. He insisted that every male have the middle name Melech, or King, and every woman have the name Malka, or Queen. It wasn’t because he wanted them to think they were royalty, far from it. He said, “I want you to take this name so you can be a ruler over yourself. You are the master over the animal within, not the slave. Just because it burns inside like a furnace doesn’t mean you must obey.”
To be a Jew is to be responsible for yourself.
Jewish comedian Sasha Baron Cohen, you may know him as Borat, recently spoke at the 60th Anniversary of the March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. He said the following:
“As Borat, I once got an entire bar in Arizona to sing, “Throw the Jew down the well”—which revealed people’s indifference to anti-Semitism. But when I tried to film that same exact scene at a bar in Nashville, something different happened. People started to boo. And then they chased me right out of that bar.
Those people made the choice that brings us all here today—they chose to believe the truth: the truth that we are all deserving of respect, dignity, and equality, no matter who we are, what we look like, how we pray, or who we love.
We always have a choice.”
The choice he was referring to is how we look at each other. Over the High Holy Days, when we focus on creation, we focus on the idea that we are all created Betzelem Elohim, in God’s image. It doesn’t mean accepting destructive behavior from others, but it does mean we must cultivate a love of humanity within ourselves.
The battle against the dark side begins within, and it challenges us at every moment.
A couple of years ago, we held our first-ever Keshet Shabbat. Keshet, which means rainbow, is an organization that works for the full equality of all LGBTQ+ Jews and our families in Jewish life.
After services, we had a panel of congregants from the LGBTQ+ community and allies speak about their experiences in the Jewish community. They opened up and shared their personal stories about how they found a place within the Jewish community and the challenges they faced. Months before this event, I met privately with our then-vice president, Nancy Spivack, about her family living in another state. She told me about her trans grandson, the struggles the family went through, and the joy they have experienced through the process. She also confided in me her fears for her grandson’s future. Will he be bullied as a child, or discriminated against? Will he be accepted or shunned? Will he be safe? After a number of months, she was ready to share her story with our community on our panel, and there were many tears shed during this beautiful discussion.
Then came the question and answer session. I saw someone in the congregation almost jumping out of his seat with a question, so I called on him.
He asked, in a rather harsh tone: “Can you comment on the law recently passed that says you can be jailed for misgendering someone?”
Frankly, I was furious. Nancy a concerned grandmother, was sharing her story, not representing lawmakers or a political party. But the panel handled it extremely, well, much better than I would have.
Rather than respond with anger or say anything in the moment, I came to him with compassion and curiosity after the discussion. I couldn’t do a web search as it was Shabbat, but I asked him: “Where did you get this information?” He answered, “Oh, trust me, it was a reputable news source. I listen to him every day.”
Spoiler alert: I looked it up on Saturday night and it was a ridiculous conspiracy theory…from Canada.
And then I asked, “How do you feel after asking that question?”
“Fine, I guess,” he answered.
I pushed back a little: “Well, I’m just a little surprised - this woman was bearing her heart to our community, sharing her greatest fears for the safety of her grandson who is trans. You chose to ask a question you likely heard from some well-paid but divisive cable news personality or podcaster. How do you think that question made her feel?”
He shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”
“Well,” I said, “I was wondering if we could do some learning together,” and I shared the following story from the Talmud:
One day, a non-Jew who wanted to convert went to the great Sage Shammai and said, “teach me the entire Torah on one foot!” In other words, can you teach me the entire Torah before you lose your balance and fall on the floor. Shammai chased him away, so he went to the Sage Hillel and asked the same question. Hillel had a different answer. He converted the man and said, “what is hateful to you, do not do unto others; that is the entire Torah, the rest is interpretation. Now go and study.”
“I asked you how you felt, but I am more concerned with how she feels after that question, and I imagine, not good. Kids like her grandson are the topic of conversation in this country, and people say some pretty hurtful things about him and other kids just like him. They’re even scared to visit her in Florida. My blessing for you though is that if you have a grandchild who is different, I hope that they are treated with dignity and kindness. I hope that others look at them like they are created in God’s image, because they are, and so are you, and so is Nancy, and so is her grandson. The Torah tells us,
לֹא־תִשְׂנָא אֶת־אָחִיךָ בִּלְבָבֶךָ
You shall not hate your brother and sister in your heart. I’m not saying you have to love everyone, but you can’t hate them.”
I started my sermon by quoting the great Jedi Sage Yoda, so I thought it would be a good idea to end with another quote from him. In speaking with a troubled student who would later become the evil Darth Vader, the Jedi master said, “To be a Jedi is to face the truth, and choose. Give off light, or darkness, my student. Be a candle or the night.”
So, we can do things to bring light into the world.
Hatred can begin and end when you are mindful of who and what you let in.
In parashat Shoftim, one of the parashiot that lead up to these days of Awe, we read about a mitzvah to place magistrates and officials at our gates. A Hassidic master, the Shnei Luchot HaBrit commented that these ‘gates’ are our mouths, our ears, and our eyes. Hate is being fomented online in the shady corners of the dark web, but also through mainstream voices on cable news, and podcasts that many of us listen to daily. We have a choice to listen to malicious gossip and nasty rhetoric or not, we have the choice to let lies and hate come into our lives, or not. Be mindful of the voices you let into your gates because they can poison how you view the world with their hate. We have to choose who we want to let into our own individual world. And always remember the words of Hillel the Sage: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others; that is the entire Torah.”
Speak up against hate, especially hatred of Jews.
I don’t know about you, but the first time I was confronted with real antisemitism as a young man, I was stunned and unfortunately, silent. I honestly did not know how to react when I was a college student and working at a server in a restaurant when the guy I was waiting on said he majored in Jewish engineering, what he called accounting. But I was prepared for the next time. I believe that when we are confronted with hatred and antisemitism, we must speak out, we must not remain timid and silent, whether in person or in the virtual world. All of us can do this on social media by writing a message to stand up against Jewish hate with a graphic of a small blue square that takes up 2.4% of your screen. The graphic highlights the small percentage of Jews in America, comprising just 2.4% of the total population. Despite our minority status, we are disproportionately targeted by hate crimes. Ask your non-Jewish friends to post it as well, and to stand with us against hate.
Finally, be a light in the world to others who are hated because of their identity.
On Rosh Hashanah, we dance between the ideas of the particularism of our people and the idea that we are part of one human race. Today, humanity was created which teaches us that we are bound together. As I previously mentioned, we are involved with the Anti-Defamation League’s Kulanu initiative. This year CSK will be sponsoring a team for a walk to raise money for this incredible organization whose mission is “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all”. For me, what makes this important isn’t even the funds we raise, rather, it is our physical presence. With every passing incident, we have to show our presence even more and shine the light brighter. Every time we gather, our lights become a torch. As the ADL says, “ours is a shared journey.” Consider joining us for our Walk Against Hate on October 22. We stand up together against all hatred and bigotry. We must stand together with those who feel threatened and targeted in our state, and our country.
In this new year, let us remember that to sit in the darkness of hate is a choice, just as bringing light to others is a choice. Let us leave this sacred space today wearing crowns like kings and queens, not over others, but over our own actions and choices.
Let us embrace the wisdom of ancient sages, even those who lived a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away. Just as Yoda implored his students to choose light over darkness, so too does our tradition call upon us to choose love over hate, empathy over indifference, and unity over division.
Let us remember that our choices ripple through time and space, including cyberspace, shaping not only our own lives but also the world around us. We are not mere passengers in the journey of life; we are its architects. Each day presents us with opportunities to build bridges, dispel darkness, and kindle the flames of compassion.
As we step into the embrace of the new year, let us remember the profound words of the Torah, 'Bacharta BaChaim'—choose life and choose light. Be a beacon of hope and love in a world that so desperately needs it.
L'shanah tovah tikatevu—may you be inscribed for a good and luminous year. And together, let us choose the path of love and light, for it is in that choice that we find our truest calling and our highest purpose.
For Further Discussion - Click on the link below for a source sheet based on the sermon