Rabbi Knobel then jokingly asked the congregation to make theological sense about that story this week. Like putting a white macadamia chunk cookie in front of me, I couldn't resist.
Abraham Joshua Heschel thought we are often caught in polarities. Cookies and apples, although treats, are opposite sides of the snacking spectrum. One is high in nutrition, one is not. We can eat several cookies in one short sitting, apples we rarely do, for example. Heschel noted the polarity of Halakah, the law and Aggadah the story. It is a polarity that is found often in Judiaism, with schools of thought coming out more on one side than the other. This dynamic is very old, as described in the Talmud:
R. Abbahu and R. Hiyya b. Abba once came to a place; R. Abbahu expounded Aggada and R. Hiyya b. Abba expounded legal lore. All the people left R. Hiyya b. Abba and went to hear R. Abbahu, so that the former was upset. [R. Abbahu] said to him: ‘I will give you a parable. To what is the matter like? To two men, one of whom was selling precious stones and the other various kinds of small ware. To whom will the people hurry? Is it not to the seller of various kinds of small ware?’[Sotah 40a]Stories are like pots and pans: The stuff we use on a everyday basis, and are part of our lives. Often the intricacies of Halakah are powerful, but have little meaning to the average person.In the book In Prasie of the Baal Shem, we have the parallel story to Sotah 40a that the Baal Shem Tov made one of his first converts to Hasidism out of a opponent, R. Yaccov Yosef of Polonye, by telling him stories. They can be very powerful things indeed. Yet, the polarity of Halakah and Aggadah is not either/or, but a blend of the two. To not charge interest in a loan to a family member is both ethical and a law in Torah for example. What is also true is where there is light there is always darkness. If there is a polarity of Aggadah and Halakah, there is also a polarity of sin as well. There are the sins against the Mitzvot of Torah and its corresponding Halalka. There are also sins in our personal and collective stories often being moral lapses.
Yom Kippur is not a holiday of halakic sins, it is aggadic in nature. In theYom Kippur confessional prayer Ashamnu, there is no mention of eating cheeseburgers, nor gathering twigs on Shabbat. Yet different types of Lashon Hara, evil speech, abound. We confess in Ashamnu that we convinced others to do bad things, we spoke slander, etc. Implicit in this confession, this behavior has become a normalized behavior for us. The Talmud writes:
IF ONE SAYS: I SHALL SIN, AND REPENT, SIN AND REPENT. Why is it necessary to state I SHALL SIN AND I SHALL REPENT twice? — That is in accord with what R.Huna said in the name of Rab; for R. Huna said in the name of Rab: Once a man has committed a transgression once or twice, it becomes permitted to him. ‘Permitted ‘? How could that come into your mind — Rather, it appears to him like something permitted.[Yoma 87a]R. Huna in the name of Rab identifies an important problem. Sin becomes meaningless by being normative behavior. It is a lot like when Yossel eats his fourth chocolate chip cookie, the one where he loses track of how many he really ate. Ashamnu and the Vidui confessional prayers breaks of this pattern, by admitting to ourselves and the congregation we are guilty of this. Significantly, it has the nu suffix on each of the confessions. The first person plural -- "we" involves all of us. We have corrupted not only our own story but the story of each other, our community and the story of the world. Social and moral evil is not just normalized for us individually, but as a community.
Eating a cookie is not a bad thing. It can bring a lot of joy to someone, and many times is the reward for a small child to eat all of their veggies. Eating a lot of cookies may cause health problems, though. Hoarding or not sharing cookies is rather anti social. There is the possibility of bad behavior. When we eat all the cookies on a plate we may not even notice we are doing something bad to ourselves, or something selfish to others. We have to admit to a cookie problem before we stop snarfing cookies.
Cookies themselves are not sin, though many might think so. They have potential for both good and evil, it is what we do with cookies that is important. Such is true withAggadah, both as our personal story, our collective story, or our commitment to an ethical life. The cuteness of the story Rabbi Knobel told is that Yossel is of course wrong, God is watching the cookies. Yet Yossel is right that it is Aggadah that God gives us more freedom in deciding what is right than the Halakah, and thus make the most mistakes. Thus Yom Kippur gives us the chance to change our ways about the Aggadah in our life.
The irony of comparing one of the biggest fast days to chocolate chip cookies is not lost on me. May your fast be an easy, and fulfilling one, and may you be inscribed in the book of fully living-- with super chunks of joy.