If you have an aversion to all things even remotely religious, then you might want to skip this post. On the other hand, this sermon I gave on Yom Kippur at Shir Libeynu, the wonderful congregation I’m a part of (www.shirlibeynu.ca) has thrills, chills, travel adventure and a couple of really good Hasidic stories.
For those of you unfamiliar with Jewish liturgy, context will allow you to get much of this, but one quick note. “Shana Tova” translates literally as “a good year” and is how Jews commonly greet one another from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.
Congregation Shir Libeynu
Yom Kippur Sermon
5772 / 2011
My fists are clenched. My knuckles are white. I’ve forgotten how to swallow.
It is May of this year, and I’m travelling through China.
At the moment, more specifically, I’m on a bus from the city of Kunming to the Yuanyang rice terraces. Visiting the rice terraces had seemed like a great idea when I’d been back home. The many photographs I’d pored over told of a landscape too surreal to believe and too beautiful to miss; small plateaus of rice fields filled with water, carved into the sides of mountains, and ascending one above the other to form a green and glimmering contour map.
But if you’re going to take a bus to mountainside rice terraces, that means riding a bus through mountainside highways.
After two weeks in China, I thought I’d gotten used to its reckless roads, but the ante has just been raised – sheer cliffs, one blind turn after another, guardrails few and far between.
Unlike me, the driver is fearless, operating by three rules:
Rule number one. Never take your hand off the horn.
Rule number two. Never ease up on the gas.
Rule number three. Always, always, always pass any vehicle in sight, even if that means…
…Rule number three-A. Swerving across the solid yellow line towards oncoming traffic.
I look over at the locals, hoping to find calm in their faces.
Instead, the guy across the aisle from me is losing his lunch.
The driver yanks hard on the wheel. He’s passing a car, which is passing an eighteen-wheeler truck. We are one of three vehicles squeezed into a two-lane road with almost no shoulder, oncoming traffic closing in, and an abyss on our left. There’s a guardrail ahead, and about as much clearance between us and that guardrail as the smaller of my two clenched fists. If we hit the wrong pebble at the wrong time, all that’s going to be left of us tomorrow is a sad story on the internet.
We pass the car. We pass the eighteen-wheeler. Everyone’s honking at everyone.
I try to remember what it’s like to breathe, while the driver, emboldened by his victory, seeks out new challenges, roaring through more blind turns and lurching us back-and-forth across the solid yellow line.
My mouth opens, and I whisper. “Shema Yisrael, Adonay Elohaynu, Adonai Echad.”
A voice in my head says, “Come on. Really? The Shema? Sure it’s tradition to recite it when you’re about to die, but do you really think the Shema has any bearing on how you leave this world?”
The only response I can muster is, “Shema Yisrael. Adonay Elohaynu, Adonai Echad.”
“Or are you using the Shema as an amulet?” the voice goes on. “Like taking an umbrella with you on a cloudy day to keep it from raining?”
“Shema Yisrael. Adonay Elohaynu. Adonai Echad.”
This dialogue between head and something else – call it faith, call it fear, call it the thing I don’t really have words for – is one I often experience when it comes to prayer. Including the prayers we recite on the High Holy Days. It’s a dialogue I think many of us experience. It’s a dialogue, in fact, that I began to explore a few years ago from the bima at Cecil Street. With your permission, to quote John Lennon, “let me take you down” as I come at it from a somewhat different angle and hopefully, a little more deeply.
Outside the context of a prayer setting, from a more distant, dispassionate place, I can look at Avinu Malkeynu, and see many a reason for resisting it, starting with its very refrain.
Avinu, Malkeynu. Our Father, Our King. So much for a non-gendered vision of God.
Chawneynu va’a-neinu ki- Be gracious and respond to us because-
-ein banu ma’asim. Our machzor translates this as “we have too few good deeds.” But a more literal translation is, “we have no good deeds.”
And we have every right to say, “Come on. Really? No good deeds? None? So who is it that passes that homeless guy by my office every day, and drops a dollar in his cup, and not only that, don’t I usually make eye contact with him and wish him well? And what about all those days I don’t want to go to work in the first place, in fact I don’t even want to get out of bed, but I do because I have a family depending on me? And who calls her parents every day, and never misses a Shabbes dinner, even though the odds of being asked questions about her dating life are much greater than she’d care for? And hold on. I’m not done. Let me pull out my credit card statements and show you my donations to charity even though I’ve been hit hard by the economy like everyone else, and I’m more concerned about my retirement than I’d ever imagined possible.
“So don’t tell me about no good deeds.”
The Unetaneh Tokef. Different prayer. Equal grounds for resistance.
B’rosh Hashanah yikateyvun uvyom tzom kippur yechateymun. “On Rosh Hashanah, it is written and on Yom Kippur it is decided.” Who by fire. Who by water. Who by drought, by famine, by barbiturate. All this written on Rosh Hashanah and decided on Yom Kippur?
Again, we might say, “Come on? Really? Evidence, please.”
We could keep going, page by page, prayer by prayer, and find reasons to resist them all. A lot of us do, and for good reason. But many of us don’t. We can’t.
There’s a Hasidic tale that helps me understand why I can’t. Rabbi Alan Lew tells it this way, in his exceptional book on preparing for the High Holy Days, with the bracing title of This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared:
Every year before the Days of Awe, the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, held a competition to see who would blow the shofar for him on Rosh Hashanah. Now if you wanted to blow the shofar for the Ba’al Shem Tov, not only did you have to blow the shofar like a virtuoso, but you also had to learn an elaborate system of kavanot – secret prayers that were said just before you blew the shofar to direct the shofar blasts and to see that they had the proper effect in the supernal realms. All the prospective shofar blowers practiced these kavanot for months. They were difficult and complex. There was one fellow who wanted to blow the shofar for the Ba’al Shem Tov so badly that he had been practicing these kavanot for years. But when his time came to audition before the Ba’al Shem, he realized that nothing he had done had prepared him adequately for the experience of standing before this great and holy man, and he appled. He choked. His mind froze completely. He couldn’t remember one of the kavanot he had practiced for all those years. He couldn’t even remember what he was supposed to be doing at all. He just stood before the Ba’al Shem in utter silence, and then, when he realized how egregiously – how utterly – he had failed this great test, his heart just broke in two and he began to weep, sobbing loudly, his shoulders heaving and his whole body wracking as he wept.
“Alright, you’re hired,” the Ba’al Shem said.
“But I don’t understand,” the man said. “I failed the test completely. I couldn’t even remember one kavanah.”
So the Ba’al Shem explained with the following parable: In the palace of the King, there are many chambers, and there are secret keys for each chamber, but one key unlocks them all, and that key is the ax. The King is the Lord of the Universe, the Ba’al Shem explained. The palace is the House of God. The secret chambers are the sefirot, the ascending spiritual realms that bring us closer and closer to God when we perform commandments such as blowing the shofar with the proper intention, and the secret keys are the kavanot. And the ax – the key that opens every chamber and brings us directly into the presence of the King, wherever he may be – the ax is the broken heart, for as it says in the Psalms, “God is close to the broken hearted.”
The assumption of these yamim noraim, these Days of Awe, I think, is that there is broken heartedness in us all. Broken heartedness of a kind that cries out for comfort and reassurance that we are worthy of love, despite all the failures that await us mi yom kippurim zeh ad yom kippurim ha ba, from this Yom Kippur to the next. Sometimes our lives keep us too busy to notice this ache. Sometimes we keep ourselves too busy. I know I do. And then I walk into Erev Rosh Hashanah services, and Aviva says, “please turn to page twenty-six in your machzors, and let’s read together the passage that begins ‘Listening comes hard to us,’ and I am undone and I want to weep, because some days, just about everything comes hard to me.
“God is a concept,” John Lennon once sang, “by which we measure our pain.”
“To live is to suffer,” say the Buddhists.
And maybe, to come to shul and sing Avinu Malkeinu and B’Rosh Hashanah yikateyvun and ashamnu, bagadnu with full voice, whether you believe in God as monarch, God as love, or God as fabrication, is to admit to broken heartedness and trepidation.
Whatever I may think of Avinu Malkeinu in more distant, dispassionate moments, when I am singing it in this sanctuary, with this community, I connect with that part of me that knows that calling your parents most days is good, but calling them every day is better; that it’s good to lighten others’ lives with humour, but not so good when quick-wittedness becomes a deadbolt that shuts out real connection; that listening is hard, loving is hard, and when I neglect to slow down, paying attention to the richness of my life is hard.
B’rosh Hashanah yikateyvun uvyom tzom kippur yechateymun. On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is decided. Sounds preposterous. But maybe it’s true. Maybe things are written on Rosh Hashanah and decided on Yom Kippur because things are written and decided every day. We see the cliff and the guardrail, and there’s no knowing which side we’re headed for. And we have this prayer to remind us that while we’re still on the road, there are a lot of things we can still make right.
And trading my distance and dispassion for proximity and something resembling passion, I think I’m finally beginning to understand why I’ve been able to bear this fragility.
Partly, it’s community.
As with many of you, I’m sure, the place I most often go for spiritual connection is solitude; meditating at home, or taking a walk along a quiet path in High Park, or riding the streetcar and attuning to the music of the city. But what we do here today, I wouldn’t care to take on by myself. A few nights ago, just to see how it felt, I tried to imagine being some place with no Jewish community and entering an empty hall to make the prayers and confessions of the High Holy Days on my own. It didn’t feel good. Here, together, our voices joining and vibrating and changing the air around us, we get to twin our failings with our neighbour’s, and we get to know that we’re not the only ones singing with heaviness in our hearts.
And there’s something else. Another reason I’ve been able to bear this fragility. In standing up for these prayers, and owning up to the many ways in which I’ve missed the mark, I think I’ve been declaring my trust, even a knowledge, that there really is a loving, forgiving force that wants us to heal. I’ve even had occasion of late to feel that force tangibly.
Come on? Really?
After the High Holy Days are over, perhaps I’ll come to recognize this as some kind of religious nuttiness, certain to be cured by reason and reality. Perhaps. But I am starting to have doubts about some of my doubts.
Now here’s something I don’t doubt.
As we prepare to leave this place where we’ve been wiping the slate clean, and return to the messy, minefield of a world in which we live, I don’t doubt the wisdom of the Hasidic Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol.
When Reb Zusya was about to die, his students gathered. They saw Reb Zusya’s eyes filled with tears. “Rebbe,” they asked, “Why are you crying? You have lived a good, righteous life, and left many students. Soon you are going on to the next world. Why cry?”
Reb Zusya said, “I see what will happen when I enter the next world. Nobody will ask me, why was I not Moses? I am not expected to be Moses. Nobody will ask me, why was I not Rabbi Akiva? I am not expected to be Rabbi Akiva. They will ask me, why was I not Zusya? That is why I am crying. I am asking, why was I not Zusya?”
On this day, may the brokenness in us know healing. And in the days to come, may we be spared Reb Zusya’s tears, simply by remembering who we already are, and knowing we don’t need to be anyone else.
And in case you’re wondering, the bus driver did get us through the mountains, and the rice terraces of Yuanyang were worth every hairpin turn. Next time, though, I think I’m hiring a taxi.