Long ago, in the city of Jerusalem, there lived a wealthy man whose annual parties were not to be missed.
Each year, he invited the crème de la crème of Jewish society. The food was lavish, barrels of wine were consumed, and the Temple musicians played their harps and lyres for the assembled guests. One month before, the host would send out a dozen footmen to personally deliver the coveted invitations to all who made his discerning cut.
Through one of those common coincidences that always seem to take place in stories like this one, the host happened to have a best friend named Kamza and a mortal enemy with the very similar sounding name of Bar Kamza. Each year, when he reminded his messengers to make sure to deliver the invitation to the right man. However, on this particular year a mistake was made, and it was Bar Kamza who received the invitation. While certainly surprised, he nonetheless planned on attending, since it promised to be the biggest social event of 70 CE.
The night of the party arrived. The host sat at the head of an exquisite table, laughing and talking with all of the leaders of Israel. And then the door swung open... and in walked Bar Kamza.
The wealthy man rushed up to him, grabbed him by the arm, and hissed: “What are you doing here? Get out!” Bar Kamza, embarrassed, tried to reason with him. “Since I am here, let me stay,” he said, “And I will pay you for whatever I eat or drink.” But the host took him by the shoulders, in the presence of the assembled guests, and threw him out onto the street.
Lying in the dirt, listening to the sounds of laughter behind the locked door, Bar Kamza was consumed with a poisonous rage. He was furious at the host for his rudeness. He was furious at himself for accepting the invitation in the first place. And most of all, he was furious with the community’s leaders who sat quietly by while he was publicly shamed. In that moment, Bar Kamza hatched to plan to take an awful revenge. He set out for Rome and arranged for an audience before the Emperor. When he was permitted entrance to the throne room, he bowed and said: “Caesar, the Jews are plotting to rebel against you.” The Emperor proposed a loyalty test: “I will send you back to them with a fine calf to sacrifice on the Temple's altar; if they refuse it, I will know that they are indeed in rebellion.”
As Bar Kamza left the palace he took out a small knife and cruelly slashed the calf, rendering it ritually unfit to be offered as a sacrifice. When he returned and presented the blemished calf to the Rabbis, they went into a frenzy. They knew that they were not permitted to offer a damaged sacrifice to God, but they also knew the cost of refusing Caesar. Most were prepared to bend the rules, just this once, but one rigid and cantankerous sage, Rabbi Zechariah, would not hear of it. In the end, the other Rabbis bowed to his pressure and turned down Caesar's offering. Word quickly travelled back to Rome. Within hours, the Legion was marching towards Jerusalem, and within months, Jerusalem, and the altar itself, were in flames.
Even this native Southern California boy is familiar with the snowball effect -- the idea that a process, once set in motion, becomes more and more difficult to stop as time goes on. In the story of Bar Kamza, what began as a mistake by a careless messenger, a display of discourtesy by a stubborn host, and an awkward silence by embarrassed guests set off a chain of events that spelled the end of Jewish freedom for two millennia. The tragedy is that anyone along the way could have stepped up and prevented the situation from escalating:
If only the host had the decency to be a mensch and tolerate a single unwanted presence at his party.
If only the assembled leaders had the wisdom to take up their moral mantle and speak out.
If only Bar Kamza had the strength to have gone home had a tall scotch and a hot bath. If only Rabbi Zechariah had the wisdom to let things be and live to fight another day. If only, if only, if only...
Last year, I spoke about the idea of ye’ush – letting go. Ye’ush is the permission to relinquish hope, to give up on one dream to make room for another one. Ye’ush is finally stopping searching for your parent’s approval, years after they are no longer alive to give it, and instead focusing on becoming a better parent to your own child. Ye’ush is my wise friend and teacher, Chana, a former Marine and current rabbinical student, a two time cancer survivor, who recently wrote about coming to terms with the fact that she is never going to have the immense physical strength she once had before chemo, but learning to honor the body she does have and bless each day that she gets to live in it. Ye’ush is letting go of a narrative of victimhood, not because you haven’t been legitimately harmed, but because you’re ready to write a new story.
This year, I want to build on that concept and add to it a second layer – captured in the Hebrew expression: ad kan.
Ad kan means: “Up to here, but no further.” It means, “This ends with me.”
Ad kan is how we break a cycle: of pain, of betrayal, of the ego’s ever escalating desire for the last word or the final vindication. Ad kan is how we stop the snowball before it becomes an avalanche that wipes away all we worked so hard to build. It’s the living out of my favorite teaching of our Sages: B’makom she’ayn anashim, hishtadel l’hiot ish – in a moment where it seems there is no human decency, strive all the more so to be a decent human being.
Ad kan is the little everyday moments of grace:
• It’s refraining from commenting on your brother-in-law’s latest offensive political status update, because you know that not once in history has anyone changed their mind because of a Facebook comment thread and it will only make things awkward around the holiday table.
• It’s the moment when your teenage daughter says something truly awful and you decide that, rather than take the bait, you’ll instead say a silent prayer of thanksgiving that you are no longer in high school.
• It’s my own experience as a newlywed learning that in lifelong commitment, there is no such thing as truly getting the last word, and that it’s usually better to listen than to speak.
• It’s all the angry emails that we write but don’t send, all the brilliant comebacks that we think but don’t say. It’s the silences, tough as they are, that only God can give us credit for.
Our health and our happiness rests on our ability to say ad kan, to not rise to every provocation, to allow our good judgment to overcome our all-too-human urge to react in anger. Ad kan is about seeing the bigger picture and prioritizing enduring values over short term satisfaction, no matter how sweet it might feel in the moment.
But, ad kan is about more than the day-to-day struggles to be a better partner, parent, colleague, and friend. There exist in our world truly pernicious cycles of violence, malice, and suffering. Generational poverty, the trap of hopelessness passed down like a poison cup from one generation to the next. Cycles of abuse, the literal visiting of the sins of the fathers upon the sons. Conflict that rips apart families and communities and nations, ramping up and up and up until neither side can remember why they hate the other so much, and the only thing they can agree upon is that it’s far too late to stop.
I think about the profound theological warning, masquerading as a children’s song, with which we close our Passover Seder. Maybe you’ll recognize it: it starts with a goat who gets eaten by a cat, who, in turn, gets bit by a dog, who gets beaten by a stick, which gets burned in a fire, and so on and so on. In that song, we play out the core narrative of the Kamza and Bar Kamza story, in which every hurt necessitates another hurt, in which the cycle of physical and emotional violence doesn’t stop until God Himself finally needs to intervene and put a stop to the madness. Yehuda Amichai, one of Israel’s greatest poets, called “ha-mechona ha-nora'a shel chad gadya”-- the terrifying engine of Chad Gadya – the soulless machine that turns us on one another and feeds on ever amplifying layers of human misery.
We end the Passover Seder with this recitation to remind ourselves of the trap of returning wound for wound. In that moment we have just finished telling the story of our exploitation by the Egyptians. It would only be fair and right that our minds turn to vengeance, to demand that our persecutors taste some of their own medicine. Our minds are on vengeance. But, Chad Gadya comes along to caution us about the cost of being unable to say ad kan, of perpetuating the cycle rather than breaking it. What looks like justice at the beginning may grow out of control with so little warning, and in it’s wake- the Angel of Death looms large.
The Jewish People lost two of our giants in the past several months; two of our greatest teachers of the wisdom of ad kan. Elie Wiesel was the living embodiment of conscience, who emerged from the hellscape of Auschwitz to spend a lifetime teaching the world about human rights. His family dead, his childhood stolen, his dreams forever haunted, Elie Wiesel could have spent the rest of his days in bitterness and in rage. Instead, he taught the world that the only meaningful response to Auschwitz is to lift our collective voices in common purpose and say ad kan to the forces of brutality and violence. “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest,” he said. “The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.”
And, we are still in shloshim for Shimon Peres, the last lion of Israel’s founding generation. Peres also bore witness to extraordinary violence and inhumanity. While his immediate family left Poland for Palestine before the war, all those they left behind, including the beloved grandfather who helped raise and educate him, were locked in the town’s wooden synagogue and burned to death in 1941. In Israel, Peres rose through the ranks from a soldier in Israel’s earliest wars to its Defense Minister and Prime Minister...twice. He knew first-hand the brutality of the battlefield and was a stalwart advocate for the defense of our homeland, yet, in his final decades, this man of war became a warrior for peace – Israel’s most consistent and respected voice saying ad kan – coming to believe that there is simply no way forward except the path of peace. He taught us that “history is not made by the cynics. It’s made by realists who are unafraid to dream.”
From the shadow of the chimneys to the face of a seemingly never-ending war, both these heroes insisted that it is not only possible, but essential to write a new script. The memories of Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres inspire us that it is possible to face even the worst in humanity and to summon the courage to say ad kan, “I’m going to do all I can to ensure this ends with me.”
A final story: Fifty years ago this summer, four mothers were arrested in the San Francisco Bay Harbor. Together they had put on their best Sunday dresses, complete with long gloves and fancy hats, climbed under a chain link fence and sat down in front a forklift that was loading containers of napalm bombs onto a ship bound for Vietnam. As soon as the women were arrested and brought up on charges of trespassing, it was clear that this was not an ordinary act of civil disobedience. The group’s leader was a forty- three-year-old housewife named Lisa Kalvalege and the testimony she gave at her trial is, for me, among the most haunting and powerful reflections of the power of ad kan.
Lisa told that court that she was born in Nuremberg in 1923, and emigrated to the United States as a GI bride in 1947, the year of the famous Tribunal that would forever become synonymous with her hometown. When she was interviewed for citizenship, she was asked where she was during the war and what she had done. She replied, that she had been a child when Hitler came to power, and only barely out of her teens when the war came to end. And then, she said, the interviewer asked what her parents had done. To this she had no answer.
She concluded her testimony with the following words: “I hope that the events of May 25th, the day of our protest, put a small balance weight on the other side. Now I can tell my six children, and later on my grandchildren, that at least in the future, they need not be silent, when they are asked: ‘Where was your mother, when...?’”
Lisa Kalvalege’s challenge, fifty years later, rings out as true as ever in our particularly difficult chapter of history. How will we answer our children and our grandchildren, who will look back and ask where we were and what we were doing when eleven million Syrians — the greatest number of refugees at any time in human history — were cast out of their homes in search of salvation? How will we explain to them how we got to a place where we hear about another mass shooting — in a church, in a club, in a theater, in a school — and we cry for a few minutes and then go back to our business? How will we justify to them that in 2016 we have yet to heal the gaping wound of race that continues to divide our cities and our hearts from one another? How will we make sense to them of the way that we have allowed our most sacred and weighty process of choosing a leader to devolve into a national circus sideshow of vulgarity and venom?
On this Yom Kippur, this awesome moment in which we declare our freedom to define a
different future – for ourselves, for our community, and for our world -- what will it take for us to say ad kan, enough is enough?
Ad kan to the vicious cycles in our own lives that rob us of our energy and our joy. What, this year, are the old fights that we have been having too long, the stale patterns that we are ready to break, the broken places in our lives where we can step up and simply refuse to be part of perpetuating our own misery one minute longer.
Ad kan to our communal sense of moral paralysis – of believing there is nothing we can do in the face of the chaos we see in our world. In this year, what will it take to stop cursing the darkness and instead believe that we can cast light? What will it take to finally motivate us to walk into the breach and say: “I may not be able to solve the problem, but I refuse to be a bystander any longer. The healing must begin, and let it begin with me.
And that is why we have this day. We can choose to continue to play out the same old broken cycles or we can step up and change the script. We can say, today in the presence of God and one another:
This time, it stops with me