"Emes - Truth"
Today is Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world!
“Happy Birthday to you…”
How do you celebrate such a number?
Where do you find a cake big enough to hold that many candles?
And is burning that many candles the best thing for for the environment?
We could look into Jewish tradition for ideas. The very first birthday
is recorded at the end of the Book of Genesis. It’s a royal birthday. In
honor of his birthday, Pharoah pulled his cup-server out of the dungeon,
pardoned him, and reinstated him to his former station. Great outcome
for the cup-bearer. The baker, on the other hand, did not do so well. In
honor of the same birthday he was also pulled out of the same jail -
only to be executed on the orders of the Pharoah.
So, not much to draw on there.
Hobbits, so J.R.R. Tolkein teaches us - celebrate birthdays by giving
gifts. The birthday hobbit-girl or hobbit-boy gives a birthday gift to
each of the guests. That’s a nice reversal. There may be something
there. More on that tomorrow.
Perhaps what’s harder about this Rosh Hashanah is that - let’s face it
- birthdays are not all roses and chocolates. Birthdays can be hard. I
don’t know about you, but in the past few weeks, as I prepared myself
spiritually and for services, I’ve struggled to capture that celebratory
It’s not that it’s not been a lovely summer. It has been. Thank God the
family is doing fine. Makom Shalom has had a good year. We moved to this
beautiful sanctuary, great location. People are joining. There is
interest. We are doing good work.
And it’s not even the state of the world as I experience it. My personal
world is really not worse now than it was a year ago.
And yet it is. That is the unreal factor. Knowing that so much is going
on. Wondering what the next year may bring. Not knowing what, or if,
there is anything anyone can do to change things in the big picture.
Like some birthdays.
So I want to propose to you a Rosh Hashanah Birthday gift. It’s a gift
that is available today and everyday. It’s a gift you can receive like a
traditional gift, that you can gift to others like a hobbit. Most
importantly, it’s one that you can give to yourself.
It’s nothing that you can touch, taste or smell. It has no color or
shape, form, yet, truthfully, it is liberating and empowering. And it
starts with an act of faith.
But first, let me tell you a story from the shtetl.
There was once a man in this particular shtetl who was known to be an
inveterate liar. Not just any lies. This guy’s untruths were something
special! They were so outrageous that the rebbe said of him: he is such
a liar - even the opposite of what he says is still not true.
There is a piece of wisdom in this quip. Once lies become the norm, we
lose our connection to the truth.
This morning I want to talk to you about the importance of truth however
discomforting that truth may be.
Let’s take a step back here. Being truthful is, of course, important.
But today I am not making the moralistic case for always speaking the
truth. I don’t think that’s possible or even necessarily desirable.
Decent people do strive to tell the truth. But human beings are not
always completely truthful. Nobody tells “the whole truth and nothing
but the truth” at all times. As the British and Jewish philosopher Keith
Kahn-Harris writes in a new book that will be released later this week
“deceptions are vital if humans are to live together civilly. You keep
silent about things you know clearly but which you should not and do not
The exception that proves the rule are young children. They are way too
honest. Which is why you don’t tell your young kids everything. Or why
some of our parents or grandparents resorted to Yiddish when they had
interesting news to share. And part of raising a child is teaching them
what should not be shared and what is best kept to oneself.
Honesty sometimes needs to give way to being kind.
There’s more to this. We withhold the truth not only from others but
from ourselves too. We are all in denial at least some of the time. As
Keith Kahn-Harris puts it: “Most of the time we spare ourselves the
torture of recognizing our baser yearnings.” I would add that we also
spare ourselves the memory of certain things that we may have said or done.
In our pre-High Holiday study session a couple of weeks ago, we were
invited to reflect on repentance and other themes of the High Holydays.
As I sat quietly, I was reminded how we hide ourselves from ourselves
even when when it’s public knowledge. The nature of such hiding is that
it is visible to me only when practised by others. I have had the
experience on more than one occasion where words were said to me by
people I was in relationship with. Words that I considered to be unkind
and untrue. So, I found a quiet moment at a later time with this
colleague to bring this up in the context of our relationship. I tried
to speak respectfully and from the heart. I then listened for a
response. What I found on more than one occasion that the person I was
addressing had no memory of the event, and could not even conceive of it
happening. Even when the incident occurred in front of others, the
response was: “I honestly don’t remember.” There was graciousness too:
“since you are telling me this, I’m sorry.” And I have to tell you. I
believe them. My reading was that their sense of self did not cohere
with this behaviour so the memory of it evaporated.
I am sure I am equally capable of the same inability to remember when
the memory is overwhelming.
All this is normal and routine.
In order to grow, in order to grapple with change, in order to catch up
with the the realities all around us we must come to the edge of our
knowledge of what once was true and go beyond that. This can be
I am experiencing this now with regard to the torrent of news about
major changes to our world. I simply cannot process it all. Sometimes I
think my sense of self-preservation blocks me feeling almost anything.
The best I can do sometimes is watch the late night shows and try to get
at some of through comedy.
We humans tend to block out truths that we feel are too difficult to bear.
This is not a new problem. When Galileo suggested that the sun did not
rise in the east and set in the west but that globe span on its axis and
orbited around a stationary sun, the outrage was so great that the
religious authorities threw him into jail and tortured him to recant.
When Baruch Spinoza of the Sephardic community in 17th century Amsterdam
put forward a humanistic reading of Judaism, the community
excommunicated him. He went on to great success outside the community.
But an earlier humanist heretic from the same community, Uriel D’acosta,
submitted to humiliating beatings in the synagogue. The measure of the
violent response to given in Uriel’s subsequent act. He left the
congregation a broken man, went home and took his own life. Today, we
wouldnt recognize a Judaism without the teachings of D’acosta and
Spinoza. And the same goes for the world of science.
I think that our experience with science gives us a model to grapple
with the discomfort of unsettling truths in the world around us.
Through our commitment to science we affirm the importance of truth and
the necessity of believing in the possibility of truth.
Let me give you a couple of examples.
The visible universe extends to distances that we can’t even begin to
comprehend. Just thinking about the size of our solar system makes my
head hurt. It’s less than 2 light years across or billions of miles,
whatever that means. But that doesn’t even begin to approach the size of
our galaxy. The universe is estimated at 93 billion light years across
with at least two trillion galaxies. That’s galaxies, not stars! In our
galaxy, the Milky Way, the most conservative estimate places the number
of stars at 100 billion. These are numbers that are utterly meaningless
even if you could present them, scaled down, as a series of football
That was in a few sentences the scope of what we once knew about the
size of the universe. This was in the early 20th century. Armed with
this framing Albert Einstein and others saw the next hurdle as finding
the ultimate formula for understanding everything. They believed they
were one problem away from cracking the universe’s biggest secrets.
And then this very knowledge led to the realization of a massive
contradiction that sunk the entire theory. Simply put, the universe as
know it doesn’t work. Or rather, it shouldn’t. But that fact is it does.
That’s the problem. There just isn’t enough stuff in the universe to
hold the universe together. All the atoms and sub-atomic materials and
everything else does not add up. There has to be much, much more
material that we cannot see. In fact, scientists were able to quantify
the enormity of the problem. The entire visible universe with its
gazillion stars and planets and everything in between is estimated to be
only 4% of what there is. The other 96% is…well, we just don’t even
begin to know what that is. Nobody has ever seen it, never mind analyzed
it. Imagine the discomfort that discovery brought on. The sum total of
the wisdom of the most brilliant minds in the most scientifically
advanced civilization history has known has cracked only a tiny fraction
of all that is. At least, this time no-one was imprisoned or tortured.
And one more:
Evidence from a range of scientific fields reinforce the consensus view
among scientists that humanity originated in Africa. Then, last year a
report came out showing evidence of human-made marks on mastodon bones
found in California. This site was dated to some 130,000 years ago. If
true, this means that the first humans came to the Americas over 100,000
earlier than perviously thought. That’s a shift from 15,000 years ago to
130,000 years ago.
In every field of discovery, if we hew to the scientific method, we are
in for a ride. These new perceptions are not trivial corrections. They
upend the way we think about ourselves. They are deeply unsettling. If
humans arrived in North America 130,000 years ago then it strains the
long-established consensus that all humanity originated in Africa and
migrated to other continents less that 130,000 years ago. The two
theories are currently incompatible but eminent scientists hold both to
What does it mean that the universe is 93 billion years across? What
exists at the 94 billion mark and beyond? What can we say we know when
the entire sum of all human knowledge of the universe has nothing to say
about 96% of creation?
What new discoveries will come in the future that will upend what
science is teaching us today is true?
The composition of the universe or the origin of human civilization in
the Americas have no bearing on everyday lives. But what about all those
studies that do:
One year Atkins banishes carbs; the next thing you know it’s all about
Neandarthal whole grains.
Alcohol is bad for you; But the next moment the French drink a glass of
red wine every night and live to be 120 with a full head of hair. But
does that only work with a French diet? And then again, this past summer
we learned that any amount of alcohol is damaging.
Ditto dark chocolate, coffee..
So, perhaps we should just throw in the towel.
But we don’t. That is not a reason to reject science. Our discomfort
with such massive upheavals in thinking are not reasons to give up the
quest for truth.
We do believe in the possibility of truth.
We believe there is a knowable truth and that it’s worth going through
these periodic upheavals.
Yet, when it comes to social truths, truths about values, the challenge
is much harder. It’s not just the social white lies. It’s a question
about truth itself. When it comes to values, who is to say what is true?
And perhaps every statement about reality is just a projection of our
imagination. There is no truth. There is no independent reality. All
life is: he said, she said. The truth is not somewhere in the middle but
nowhere at all. What if the category of truth does not exist. What if
that former mayor of a major U.S. city is right and: “Truth is not
truth.” And, for the logicians among you, I won’t dwell on the logical
paradox in saying: “the truth is: that truth is not truth.”
So, let’s consider what a world without the possibility of truth would
We would be left with nothing but self-interest. Community would not be
possible. Anything we agreed on could shift in an instant as alliances
break down or are formed elsewhere, as self-interest points in different
directions. There would be no shared reality that we could agree we live in.
Without truth there would be no point in exploring the views of others
or examining one’s own. You have your truth, I have mine. “Let’s agree
to disagree” would be the sum wisdom of every interaction in which there
is no complete agreement.
Introspection or study would be an endless, pointless exercise. If my
truth is all there is then there is nothing to strive for. There is no
greater truth than what I already know.
All opinions wold be equally valid, however ill-informed or destructive.
Mastery of facts, powers of persuasion, logic would be meaningless -
unless you decided they were valuable.
Everyone would have equal standing in any debate. There would be no
advantage to scholarship, life experience or any wisdom.
Finally, the apparent humility in the statement: “Who can know the
truth? I don’t know the truth and nobody does.” It’s a false humility.
In fact, it is a conceit masquerading as humility. Without truth we
would live at the whim of our own flickering desire. Worse, without the
guidance of study and reflection and rational thinking we would be
vulnerable to the emotional manipulations of charismatic opportunists.
How can we celebrate the birthday of the world and look forward to a new
year standing on that ground?
How can we approach Yom Kippur, look back and take stock our lives if
there is no such thing as truth.
So, let’s explore when denial goes too far. When is truth itself endangered?
So, what are the boundaries of this kind of civility? When does our
denial of parts of ourselves or our denial of the truth of others’ go
Keith Kahn-Harris’ answer is: “when when it becomes public dogma. In
other words: when denial becomes denialism.
Denialism - the title of his book - is an expansion, an intensification,
of denial. At root, denial and denialism are simply a subset of the many
ways humans have developed to use language to deceive others and
themselves. Denial can be as simple as refusing to accept that someone
else is speaking truthfully. Denial can be as unfathomable as the
multiple ways we avoid acknowledging our weaknesses and secret desires.
Denialism is more than just another manifestation of the humdrum
intricacies of our deceptions and self-deceptions. It represents the
transformation of the everyday practice of denial into a whole new way
of seeing the world and – most important – a collective accomplishment.
Denial is furtive and routine; denialism is combative and extraordinary.
Denial hides from the truth, denialism builds a new and better truth.”
This is not a new challenge. Our tradition has long been skeptical about
the possibility of living in a truth-based world. It is telling that the
ancient rabbis reserved the name Oilom Ho’emes The World of Truth for
With perhaps grim honesty, they saw our world - our lives - as prone to
lies and deception, shadows and self-deception. We think we know
something, we know somebody, and then that certainty melts away and the
ground we once stood one disappears.
Rosh Hashana is, among other things, about recalibrating our faith in
truth. I may not know the truth yet, I may not get to know the truth
about everything in one lifetime, but there is such a thing as truth.
Call that God if you will. God, is the Judge of Truth. Have humility
before absolute truth that lies beyond our powers but don’t give up on
Deal with the discomfort that uncovering the truth can entail.
Is that really what I did?
Is that really who we are?
This is a new thought for me. It’s not an obvious one. In the Torah,
Rosh Hashana is called “the day of the sounding of the Shofar.” When we
bless the day over kiddush or at prayers we call Rosh Hashanah “the Day
of Remembering.” There are other names in our tradition. But as I
started to re-read our sources, Emes or Truth kept on cropping up in
It appears on p. 116 in our prayerbook in the 13 Divine Attributes of God.
You may not see always emes always in our Makom prayerbook in the
English, perhaps because it is assumed; it underpins the services.
Here are a few key pieces of liturgy. In the Amidah in a key phrase that
characterizes the essence of this day “…for You, God are Truth and Your
word is truth and everlasting…Baruch atah adonai…who sanctifies this Day!”
In the Untaneh Tokef. “…You, God, sit on the Divine Throne in the
attribute of Truth.”
Uniquely in the Jewish liturgical year, the High Holyday prayers elevate
the theme of “emes”.
Or as Emily Dickinson said:
Truth—is as old as God—
His Twin identity
And will endure as long as He
And perish on the Day
Himself is borne away
From Mansion of the Universe
A lifeless Deity.
Truth is an attribute of the Divine.
To deny the possibility of truth and to give up on truth is to deny the
Divine within us.
I find it telling that our tradition would make this the focus of Rosh
Hashanah. It seems like this is not humanity’s first encounter with
Non-Truth. Apparently, the concept of Truth is something we have needed
an annual checkup on since antiquity.
The enduring quality of truth is what allows for remembering. Without
truth the past is meaningless. Yesterday I said X because that felt
right. Today is a new day and I feel different, therefore Y is true. I’m
not saying I didn’t say X. It is meaningless to dispute the record if
there is no such thing as truth. All I’m saying is right now I’m saying
Y. And yes, tomorrow will be a new day and Y will only be valid if
that’s what I’m saying then. But I could also be saying Z or going back
to X. There is no truth. There is no past. All there is is the
flickering present moment. What a horror story.
The scientific approach to the world is a good model. Scientific
discoveries regularly upend previously held orthodoxies in dramatic fashion.
We live in an age when truth itself is under siege.
Judaism teaches that this is worthy battle.
No more so than today on Rosh Hashanah.
It starts with an article of faith: There is emes and that too is an
aspect of God.
From a place of faith, give yourself the gift of emes by seeking truth
even when it makes you uncomfortable;
Give others the gift of emes by holding to your truth even when
surrounded by forceful other voices;
Receive the gift of emes from others when they speak to you with love
and respect and show you where you have missed the mark.
We are in the perfect place to do this vital work of Rosh Hashana,
recommitting to truth to emes.
Our acronym is an M for Makom and an S for Shalom. We are Makom Shalom.
We are a place of faith and we take a stand for truth, Emes in the world.
Truth is important; truth is foundational; we would not want to live in
a world without emes; truth is one of God’s attributes and the
foundation of Rosh Hashanah.
This Rosh Hashanah let us re-affirm our faith in truth, a divine
attribute and the foundation of our lives, however discomforting that
truth may be.
Ken yehi ratzon,,,
Rabbi Michael E. Davis
An inclusive, Jewish community in Chicago