Rabbi’s Remarks: “Past Imperfect, Future Tense”

My late father, Rabbi Meyer Miller, found this “grammatical” headline intriguing. I actually think he may have used it as a title for a Rosh Hashanah sermon or two! Even thirty years ago it captured the world political situation. For whatever reason, we human beings appear incapable of learning the lessons of history. Or perhaps it’s a matter of only focusing on those lessons we want to learn and screening out any others.

It’s no coincidence that within the space of four chapters our Torah describes two major infractions on the part of humanity: one between individuals and God and the other between two individuals. I’m referring, of course, to (1) violating the Divine commandment not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and (2) the murder of Abel by his brother Cain.

The first is about the willingness on the part of human beings to accept higher authority. We are talking about a lack of desire to examine the long-term implications of our behavior as individuals. To what degree do we need to listen to the voices of others whether living in the present or the past and make our choices accordingly? Just because I believe something is right or good, isn’t a sufficient or even reliable criterion. Divine Command, I believe, lies somewhere between the historically interpreted words of our Tradition and the demands of the time.

The second (Cain vs. Abel) centers on the challenge for human beings to coexist. In the Biblical account, Cain and Abel bring offerings to God. It appears that Abel brings the best of his flock, while Cain brings leftover fruits and vegetables. When God accepts Abel’s offering and reject Cain’s, Cain feels injured and subsequently furious. God questions Cain and suggests that he needs to examine his own actions. Cain can only focus on his own hurt. He is consumed with jealousy of his brother. The end result: Cain murders Abel.

The issues described by the Torah are universal. Every single human deals with the challenge of hearing the voice of God—or should I say, “listening” to the voice of God. And every human being has to decide whether or not they are willing to face their own inadequacies. Following that, are they willing to take the steps necessary to survive in a competitive environment through their own hard work and not by simply eliminating the “offending party.”

As we approach the time of harvest, the time to take stock of the fruits of our labor, the Festivals of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur provide us with opportunity to take stock of our lives. It’s essentially about our moral imperative to examine the life we are living. What kind of harvest have we achieved so far; what have our lives yielded? As long as we are alive there’s always the possibility of changing for the better in the New Year.

The past may be imperfect, but the future can be bright!

Rabbi Mordecai Miller