Originally post Thursday, September 24th, 2015

(Sermon for Kol Nidre Night 5776)

September 22, 2015

One of my favorite aphorisms is the one that says “There are two types of people in the world – people who divide the world into two types of people --- and everyone else.”  At least that’s the version I first learned.

The original version is apparently by the American humorist Robert Benchley (1889-1945) who wrote in the February 1920 issue of Vanity Fair:

“There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not. Both classes are extremely unpleasant to meet socially, leaving practically no one in the world whom one cares very much to know.” [1]

And of course, there have been a slew of variations on this theme ever since:  My new favorite that I just came across last week is the anonymously authored quip: 

"There are only 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who don’t."[2]

Judaism is filled with binary classifications --- that’s the very nature of the Havdalah (“separation”) ritual with which we end Shabbat and major holidays.  When we conclude Yom Kippur tomorrow evening we’ll be evoking:

Hamavdil beyn Kodesh lechol – The One who separates between the holy and the everyday;  beyn or lechoshekh/ between light and darkness, beyn yisra’el le’amim/ between Israel and other peoples; beyn yom hashevi’I lesheshet ymei hama’aseh/ between the seventh day and the six days of creation….

And this evening just before we chanted Kol Nidre, we read the famous Mishnah from Masechet Yoma which invokes the classic rabbinic binary classification:  

averot beyn adam lamakom/ transgressions between a person and Godversus averot beyn adam lechavero / transgressions between one person and another person. 

As the Mishna teaches: 

עבירות שבין אדם למקום יוה"כ מכפר עבירות שבין אדם לחבירו אין יוה"כ מכפר עד שירצה את חבירו

(Yoma 8:9)

“For transgressions between a person and God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions between one person and another, the Day of Atonement does not atone unless the wrongdoer has first become reconciled with the person wronged.”

It’s no doubt helpful in life to be able to separate things into this or that, one thing or the other….

But binary classifications don’t cover all possibilities. 

The terms “day” and “night” fail to cover that liminal time between day and night.

Indeed, in Hebrew the word “erev” (“evening”) literally means “mixture”

And dusk, those minutes after the sun has set but before it has gotten dark, is known in Jewish tradition as “beyn ha-arbayim” (literally – “between the evenings”).  

The dichotomy beyn yisra’el le’amim/ between Israel and other peoples is tempered by the presence of individuals who are very much of a part of the community but who have not formally converted ---  a status hinted at by the Biblical category of “ger toshav” (“resident alien”).

And even such seemingly binary categories as “male” (zachar) vs. “female” (nekeyvah) were recognized in the Talmud as being only two ends of a spectrum of six gender possibilities that includes four intermediate categories of individuals with mixed gender characteristics.[3] 

So, it’s no stretch to think that Jewish tradition might be oversimplifying things when it divides types of deeds into just the two categories of beyn adam lamakom/between a person and God vs. beyn adam lechavero/ between one person and another.

Actually, we already see Jewish tradition backtracking on too rigid a distinction between these categories.

The Torah reports (Exodus 34:29) that Moses carried two tablets of the law with him when he descended from Mt. Sinai (and by the way, Rashi says that this descent took place on the 10th of Tishri, Yom Kippur). 

Tradition teaches that the first tablet with the first five commandments  (which contain explicit references to God, such as “You shall not take the name of Adonai Your God in vain”) belong in the category of Beyn adam lamakom

And the second tablet with commandments 6 through 10, which don’t explicitly mention God (e.g., “You shall not steal”), belong to the category of Beyn Adam lechavero. 

However, number 5 represents a transition point with elements of both:

  כַּבֵּד אֶת-אָבִיךָ, וְאֶת-אִמֶּךָ--לְמַעַן, יַאֲרִכוּן יָמֶיךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.  {ס}

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long upon the land which Adonai your God gives you.

(Exodus 20:11)

Indeed, there are elements of both categories here.

“Honor your father and mother” seems like a beyn adam lechavero type of rule (between people) but it’s on the “beyn adam lemakom”  tablet and it invokes God as well as one’s parents.

In Tractate Kiddushin of the Babylonian Talmud we learn:

It is said, “Honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12) and it is also said, “Honor the Eternal…” (Proverbs 3:9).  Thus the Torah equates the honor due to parents to that of God […] Our rabbis taught: There are three partners in humans: God, the father, and the mother.  When a person honors his father and his mother, God says, “I credit them as though I dwelled among them.”    (Kiddushin 30b-31a)

(And let me give a “shout out” to those of you who are here in synagogue tonight because you know that your parents would want you to be here.  You’re living out the mixed nature of this mitzvah by joining in our communal prayers to God as a way of giving honor to your parents.)

But let’s get back to the more general question of what’s missing when we try to rely too much on the simple dichotomy of “beyn adam lamakom” vs. “beyn adam lechavero.”  Here’s what the writer Jeremy Benstein has to say:

“Today we need a new category [in addition to “beyn adam lamakom”/”between a person and God” and “beyn adam lechavero”/between one person and another]  This is not to suggest inventing new mitzvot or halachot out of whole cloth, but rather regrouping and focusing existing concepts and values to facilitate our engagement with them. We need to begin speaking in Jewish language of our moral and ethical obligations to the Earth --- these actions that have never been grouped together before – as mitzvot bein adam le’olam, ‘between people and the world’”[4]

Benstein has advanced degrees in rabbinic literature and environmental anthropology and is a founder and associate director of the Tel Aviv – based Heschel Center for Sustainability.  He wrote those words in 2006.  But they are very much in the zeitgeist now.  Just two months ago Pope Francis issued an important new encyclical on environmental issues entitled “Laudato Si” (“Praises to You”).[5]  In a section of the encyclical entitled “The Gospel of Creation,” the Pope writes: 

"66. The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), [and] to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19)."

Later in “Laudato Si,” In a section entitled “The Message of Each Creature in the Harmony of Creation,” the Pope writes: 

"84. Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, [God’s] boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God. The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning; we all remember places, and revisiting those memories does us much good. Anyone who has grown up in the hills or used to sit by the spring to drink, or played outdoors in the neighbourhood square; going back to these places is a chance to recover something of their true selves."

Just this past Shabbat morning, when the religious school students were up on the bima with me for the Amidah, I asked them if there were special places where they particularly felt God’s presence.  I asked this question as a way of encouraging them to think about the quotation in the Amidah from the Book of Ezekiel 3:12


יב  […]  בָּרוּךְ כְּבוֹד-יְהוָה, מִמְּקוֹמוֹ.

12 […] Blessed be the glory of the Eternal from [God’s] place';

We got some great answers from the kids, including one child mentioning “Lake Superior” and another mentioning her family’s cabin in Minnesota’s north woods.

Pope Francis’s environmental message brings to mind the classic rabbinic Midrash in Exodus Rabba:

”Even things you see as superfluous in this world -- like flies, fleas, and mosquitos -- they are part of the greater scheme of the creation of the world, as it says (Gen. 1:31), ‘And God saw all that God has created, and behold it was very good.’  And R. Acha bar R. Chanina said, even things you see as superfluous in this world -- like snakes & scorpions -- they are part of the greater scheme of the creation of the world.”  (Exodus Rabbah 10:1)

With glaciers melting, climates changing, wildfires burning, and species going extinct …. The papal encyclical Laudato Si’s warning is most timely.  Pope Francis writes:

"161. Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences."

As we gather here this evening, the Pope is in Washington, DC to meet with President Obama.  And later this week he’ll be speaking to Congress and before the United Nations General Assembly.  I have no doubt that his inspirational message about our moral duty to protect the environment will be part of the message he brings with him.

As for us, we might add to our “al chet” confessional litany of sins a few new ones from Benstein’s suggested category of averot beyn adam la-olam/ transgressions between people and the world:

Here is a Yom Kippur litany composed by Rabbis Danny Nevins and David Seidenberg:[6]

"Eternal God, You created earth and heavens with mercy, and blew the breath of life into animals and human beings.

"We were created amidst a world of wholeness, a world called “very good,” pure and beautiful, but now your many works are being erased by us from the book of life.

"Not by our righteousness do we make our pleas before You, Adonai our God, for we have sinned, ruined, destroyed.

"May it be Your will that You help us overcome and make atonement: For the wrong of filling land and ocean with filth, toxins and garbage;

"And for extinguishing forever wondrous species which You saved from the waters of the flood;

"For the wrong of razing forests and trees, valleys and mountains, 

"For the wrong of turning the atmosphere into a chastening rod,

"And for making desolate the habitats that give life to every living soul.

"Open our eyes to see the majesty of Your creation, and we will praise You, as it is written: “How manifold are Your works, Adonai!  You made them all with wisdom; the earth is filled with what you hold.” (Ps. 104:24)

"Please Adonai, protect them all, in the shade of your wings give them refuge.

"Renew the face of the earth, please, save the weave and fullness of life.

"Please Adonai, remove the heart of stone from our flesh,  and set within us a heartof flesh, that we may behold the Godly there.

"Grant us wisdom and courage to heal and watch over this garden of life, to make it thrive under the heavens."  

Here in the United States, and here in Minnesota, environmental protection concerns are sometimes attacked as being in conflict with economic concerns.  In particular, environmentalists are sometimes derided as being insensitive elitists who don’t care about the needs of working class folks for the jobs and economic input that dangerous fossil fuel extraction industries can provide. We see that vividly here in northern Minnesota with the debates over Polymet and the Sandpiper Pipeline, as well as in nearby states over the Keystone XL Pipeline.

I don’t personally have any easy solutions to offer.  But there has got to be a way to support the economic survival of residents of mining towns without destroying the planet. 

The Mishnah from Tractate Yoma that we recited before Kol Nidre tonight continues beyond where the excerpt in our machzor leaves off.  It concludes by comparing God to a mikvah.  We have many metaphors for God:  Parent, sovereign, shepherd, military commander --- but how breathtaking it is to conceive of God as a mikvah – a natural body of mayim chayim/living waters.

Lake Superior would certainly qualify, as would the Boundary Waters. 

And so I invite you to envision the beautiful waters of "Gichigami" or the streams of the Boundary Waters in these words of the Mishnah:

“For transgressions between a person and God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions between one person and another, the Day of Atonement does not atone unless the wrongdoer has first become reconciled with the person wronged. Rabbi Akiva said: happy are you, O Israel! Who is it before whom you become purified? And who is it that purifies you? Avichem Shebashamayim/Your parent who is in heaven, as it is said (in Ezekiel 36): ‘I will sprinkle pure water upon you and ye shall be purified. And it further says: The Mikvah of Israel is Adonai.  Just as the Mikvah renders pure the impure, so does the blessed holy one purify Israel.” (Yoma 8:9)

This Day of Atonement calls upon us to care for the living waters, the land, the air and the biodiversity of our planet as part of our teshuvah --- as part of our return to God. 

Barukh oseh ma’ashe vereysheet/ Blessed is the maker of the work of Creation….

May we be resolute in preserving God’s creation from our own destructive tendencies.

Gmar chatimah tovah.  May we be inscribed and sealed for a good year – a year of peace and blessing for us, for all of humanity, for all living creatures and for our planet.


(c) Rabbi David Steinberg/ September 2015/ Yom Kippur 5776



[2] Ibid



[4] Jeremy Benstein, PhD, The Way into Judaism and the Environment, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006 (p. 89)



Posted on April 13, 2016 .