Yom Kippur Sermon 5778 by Rabbi Bass

This sermon was delivered at Yom Kippur services on Saturday, September 30, 2017.

Spoiler alert: For those of you who didn’t see “Wonder Woman,” I will be giving away major plot points.  This summer I watched the movie “Wonder Woman” — three times. I also now own the DVD.  I absolutely loved it. It was fun, hugely entertaining, and made me feel great.  “Wonder Woman” is smart, charming, playful, and glamorous—things that we don’t often say about superhero movies.  I absolutely loved seeing Gal Gadot, a former Miss Israel and Israeli actress, work her magic on the screen.  She lights up the screen with her presence, and is unabashedly Israeli, even down to her accent.  The movie is well-made, with beautiful colors, great music, and great double entendres, as well as very funny lines.  The fighting scenes, which usually leave me bored, brought me great pleasure.  I will confess that I found great comfort in watching a powerful woman in a golden tiara and thigh-high boots beat hordes of terrible men. Oh, what fun!

I don’t profess to be knowledgeable about comic books.  Indeed, I only found out a few years ago that people who know comics divide themselves into Marvel or DC titles.  Prior to watching the movie, I learned a little bit about Wonder Woman’s origins.  According to historian and Harvard professor Dr. Jill Lepore, in 1940, after critics complained that Superman and Batman were too violent, All-American Comics hired as a consultant a lawyer and psychologist named William Moulton Marston, who lived with two women, Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne, in a polyamorous relationship.  Both women had graduate degrees in psychology; Holloway was also a lawyer.  With their help, he pitched a comic book featuring a female superhero whose enemy is inequality.  A press release explained: “‘Wonder Woman’ was conceived by Dr. Marston to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; and to combat the idea that women are inferior to men,” because “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women.”  As you might imagine, within a year “Wonder Woman” comic books were banned, allegedly on claims of indecency.  She then became the secretary for the Justice League.  When all the men went out to war, Wonder Woman stayed behind to answer the mail.  She would call out: “Good luck, boys! I wish I could be going with you!”  Her original creators were furious!

In 1975, Lynda Carter became Diana Prince in a television series.  The series took place during World War II.  According to the series press release, when the forces of evil threatened the nation, Diana would spin to transform into Wonder Woman, armed with a magic belt that gave her tremendous strength, bracelets that would stop any bullet, a tiara that could be thrown as a returning weapon and an unbreakable magic lasso that would force anyone to tell the truth.  It was a hit throughout the world.

In the movie, Diana grows up on the Island of Themyscira, watching other Amazons do hand-to hand combat and savage sword play to pass the time.  Her mother, Hippolyta, doesn’t want her to learn to fight because she knows that Diana’s destiny is to fight Ares, and she dreads the coming of this day.  Diana’s aunt, Antiope, has different ideas.  She believes Diana should know what to do when the situation arises.  She teaches Diana how to fight, until she becomes the strongest fighter on the whole island of the Amazons.  Now Diana is a grown woman, World War I is coming to an end, and her island is invaded by Steve Trevor, an allied spy, followed by boatloads of German soldiers.  Fighting ensues, the German soldiers are defeated, and the Amazons have suffered many casualties.  Diana feels she must go away with Steve to save the world. She sees a single monster as the sole obstacle to a world of peace and justice, and she seeks to defeat him.  Yet, she is very conflicted.  While she feels she needs to fight Ares and make sure humanity is saved, she knows she can’t have her mother’s blessing.  Her mother doesn’t want to lose her, and doesn’t want her daughter to be hurt.  Hippolyta explains to her daughter that, in her view, human beings don’t deserve her.  Diana confronts her mother saying that she must go and fight Ares, the God of War.  Hippolyta, with a pained look on her face, says to her daughter: “If you choose to leave, you may never return.”  To which Diana responds: “Who will I be if I stay?”  When I heard that line in the movie, I immediately thought about the maxim of the 1st century BCE Sage Hillel, in Pirkei Avot:

If I am not for me, who will be?

If I am for myself alone, what am I?

And if not now, when?

The traditional commentators see this in the following way:

  1. If I am not for me, who will be? That means people can only attain virtue through their own strivings.
  2. If I am for myself alone, what am I? That means selfishness and disregard for others are traits of inhumanity.
  3. And if not now, when? That means moral obligations must be carried out as occasions arise and must not be postponed, lest the opportunities pass by.

While I like the traditional interpretations, I feel that there is more to this equation.  The traditional interpretations see the three questions as separate entities, barely connected to each other.  I do feel, however, that this is a literary unit, and as such its message is not in the separate questions, but in the amalgamation of the three.

If we see the three questions together, they point out that uncertainty is at the heart of every human enterprise.  How can I balance the need to take care of myself with the need to take care of the world, with the correct timing for my actions?  All our actions have many angles, many inner motivations, and many prisms.  When we accept that we all live with uncertainties, open to the many possibilities, we cannot see things in simple terms, in distinct and clear categories of right and wrong.  When we ask ourselves, am I taking care of myself, while taking care of others, at this moment in time, we do live a richer, and more difficult, life.  There are always many, competing perspectives that are constantly tugging at our emotional and intellectual strings.  These three questions are potent because they point out to us the power of uncertainty, the idea that we can grow from being open to the many possibilities of living.

Living with the power of uncertainty can be dizzying at time, and can make us feel at a loss.  Those are the moments that we feel tempted to see things in one way, and one way only.  We are tempted to find certainty in every one of our actions.

When we have certainty, we close ourselves to other possibilities.  When we see things in one perspective, and have our minds made up that the way we think and act is the only correct way, we find ourselves locked in the prison of single perspectives.  Life loses its color, and our outlook is bleak.  There is a saying, attributed to Mark Twain, that clarifies the issues that arise with having complete certainty.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

In other words, when a person is absolutely certain that s/he knows something to be absolutely true, without a shadow of a doubt, with certainty, that is when a person gets in trouble.  When we think we know the right way, and the only right way is our way, we close ourselves to other opinions, to other perspectives, and our reality becomes shriveled, sad, limited.  Without the ability to be open to questions, to different perspectives, to asking ourselves at the same time, is this good for me, for the world, and is this the right time, we incur the sin of certainty.

On Yom Kippur, we beat our chests and pronounce a list of sins.  We say: Ashamnu, Bagadnu, we have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously, a full alphabet listing of things that we have collectively done wrong.  This year, as we ponder our responsibilities through the list of actions, we must reflect upon the three questions that together point the way to the truth of the moral dilemma of living life on this earth.  Maybe we will have to add this additional sin to our list: the sin of certainty.

One might ask, but if I am not certain about something, how can I act in this world?  How are we to decide what to do, and not be paralyzed by doubt?  How are we to balance the power of uncertainty with the sin of certainty, and still do something in this world?  The answer to this question is found in the question I have been asking myself the whole summer: What would Wonder Woman do?

At the end of the movie, Diana finally discovers that she is the weapon that will destroy Ares.  The two are in an intense fight.  Steve Trevor, the man Diana rescued and fell in love with, dies, by flying away with a plane full of mustard gas and sacrificing himself so that London would not be destroyed.  He held in balance the three questions and came to the realization that he must do something that went beyond his personal interest.

Diana is devastated, and wants to spread her inner devastation on everyone around her.  She holds up a military vehicle in order to kill Dr. Poison, the mad scientist who created the vicious gas that killed the man she loves.  Ares, taking advantage of Diana’s pain, goads her about killing Dr. Poison, saying that after all, humans don’t deserve Diana, her courage, and her fight for their lives.  At this moment, Diana thinks about Steve, lowers the military vehicle she was going to smash on the mad scientist’s head, and says: “It is not about deserve. It is about what you believe. And I believe in love.”  And then she proceeds to destroy Ares.

I don’t have to tell you that at this point in the movie I was sobbing.  Okay, I am known for having cried at commercials, but I was really moved to tears here.  “It is not about deserve. It is about what you believe. And I believe in love.”  This is the answer to my quandary.  The answer to the three questions, the answer to not falling prey to the sin of certainty because of my fear and discomfort with uncertainty, is to act according to my beliefs.  It is not to act based on a value judgment about what other people deserve.  The way to act with integrity in this world is to stay centered, understanding that what we believe is the true motivation for our actions.  It is not about deserve.  We all act out of deeply held beliefs and perspectives.  If we are open to the fact that we are all acting this way, we can understand and hear with compassion other people’s perspectives.  The way we see and experience the world is highly personal, and if we accept the power of uncertainty we can recognize that other people’s ideas, while different than ours, have their place.  We will all come to conclusions about whatever we think is right or wrong based on what we believe.  And I believe in love.

I believe in loving other people as myself, as we learn from the Book of Leviticus.  I believe in caring, in listening with compassion, and in multiple perspectives.  I believe in seeing things from a kindhearted, loving point of view.  I believe that every human being has the potential of doing good and being good, and when I am proven wrong, I add this to the list of experiences I have, knowing that I am growing as an individual, because it is not about deserve.  And even when I am pained by choosing the wrong answer to the quandary, I know I acted out of love and compassion, and that my actions reflected my beliefs.

In this new year of 5778, let’s beat the sin of certainty out of our chests, embracing the power of uncertainty, and acting according to what we believe, not judging what others deserve.  And may we all believe in love.