[This is a sermon I wrote for my friend to deliver, with attribution, at her community’s pop-up High Holiday services.]
They say that people may forget the words you say or the way you look, but they will never forget the way you make them feel. Sometimes it feels like people pay less and less regard to this basic concept. We’ve all had experiences that drive this point home: someone says or does something thoughtless and — even though you know they didn’t mean it — you still feel awful. Or maybe they did mean it, and you feel even worse. It seems to be an ever-present and self-perpetuating phenomenon. The more unkind people are, the more it emboldens people to be unkind, until the harshness spirals out of control. Maybe it feels these days like it’s getting worse.
And yet there is a parable in our tradition that suggests that, as hard as people may seem these days, 21st century America did not invent the coarseness that characterizes our world right now.
In ancient times there were two people with similar names: Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. Think GoldSTINE and GoldSTEEN. A subtle distinction, but it turns out to be a difference that makes a difference. The story goes that there was a wealthy man who was throwing a big party. He wanted to invite Kamtza but his servant made a mistake and invited Bar Kamtza instead. It turns out, though, that the host detested Bar Kamtza and was determined that that guy not come to his party.
On the day of the party, when Bar Kamtza arrived, the host was so enraged to see him that he asked him to leave. Bar Kamtza wanted only to save face, so he asked if he could stay, if he just didn’t eat or drink anything. The host said no. Bar Kamtza offered to pay for everything he might eat or drink at the party. The host still refused. Finally Bar Kamtza offered to pay for the entire party, and still the host would not allow him to stay. He had him kicked out.
Meanwhile, all the dignitaries, all the rabbis, all the fancypants people in the town were there, and nobody said a word. They allowed the host to embarrass Bar Kamtza and nobody spoke up for him.
Jewish tradition holds that there were two sins in this interaction: the pointless hatred that caused the host to regard Bar Kamtza as his enemy and not allow him into his home, and the silence of the bystanders as they witnessed Bar Kamtza’s humiliation.
You probably need no reminder of the ways in which this story resonates today — funny names aside. We are all too familiar with the stories: whether it’s someone in high office making fun of a person with disabilities, or children teasing the new kid or the short kid or the kid whose clothes are ragged, or the person in line at the grocery store making racist assumptions about the cashier, or the bullies who threaten a gay couple walking home from the movies. This short list barely scratches the surface of all the ways we have learned to be unkind.
Sometimes it can feel like life is one big comments section.
Now let’s look at another story. Perhaps you’ve heard this one as well: it concerns a religious order that has fallen on hard times. There were few practitioners left and the leader was concerned that the order was dying out entirely. The leader went to speak with a Rabbi in a nearby town. They talked about their struggling communities, about their faith, about the mysteries of life and death. It was a wonderful conversation! Then just as he was leaving, the leader of the struggling community mentioned to the Rabbi his concern about the future of his group. The Rabbi sighed with him and said something cryptic: “One of you is the Messiah.”
The leader went back to his small group, just five people left in his community. He mentioned his conversation with the Rabbi, and the strange thing that he’d said. The other five mulled it over… “One of us is the Messiah? Couldn’t be. Unless…” “Must be our leader. He’s the only one who seems qualified.” “Maybe it’s Sister Angela. She is old and grouchy but, you know, she’s often right. Sometimes very right.” “Maybe it’s Brother Thomas. He has such a gentle way about him, he could very well be the Messiah.” “Hmm, I wonder if it’s me?”
Subtly at first, then noticeably, the culture began to change in this dying order. People began to treat one another as if they might be the Messiah. They became more patient, more likely to listen carefully; who wouldn’t want to listen to the Messiah? They helped one another more freely; after all, each of them thought, “if I’m the Messiah, I should really be more helpful.”
Gradually people from outside the order began to notice how kind and welcoming that community was, and they started to take an interest in the learning taking place there, and eventually participating more and more. Suddenly the dying order was full of life! The Rabbi’s gift was just what they needed to revive.
There is a poem by Danny Siegel that is perfect for this theme, and perfect for us to keep in mind not just at the High Holidays but year round.
If you always assume the person sitting next to you
is the Messiah
waiting for some simple human kindness –
You will soon come to weigh your words
and watch your hands.
And if the Messiah chooses
Not to reveal himself in your time –
It will not matter.”
Let’s all hold close to that thought. One of us is the Messiah. Or maybe, just maybe… all of us are.