Yom Kippur Day, 2016`
Let’s begin with a story. Or two.
Once upon a time, a young man went to his rabbi and said: “Rabbi, you know I’ve been a pious Jew all my life. But something has changed. When I was a child, I felt very close to God. But now that I’m older, it seems as if God has left me. I go about my daily business, I say my prayers, but I no longer feel God near me.”
The rabbi smiled, as though he’d heard the problem stated many times before. “You may be certain God has not left you, my friend,” he answered kindly. “When you teach a child to walk, at first you stand very close. The child can take just one step, so you must catch him. But as he grows, you move farther and farther away, so that he can walk to you. God has not abandoned you. Like a good parent, God has moved farther away, but is still close by, waiting for you. Now you must learn to walk to God.”
Isn’t that a nice story?
I think so – except for one thing:
I don’t buy it. I don’t buy the rabbi’s answer.
I don’t believe God ever moves away from us. I believe God is ever present and that it is we who move away from God. We do it for innumerable reasons, some of them quite respectable. Perhaps we don’t believe the God described to us in our childhood, especially as we encounter suffering in our lives or in the world. Or we become distant because of the need to earn a living or ferry our children from one place to another or deal with a plumbing emergency – or other reasons we may be less proud of. I’m not going to list any of those – many of them are in the litany of sins in our prayer book today. The point is, in our hectic, stressful, distracting daily lives, it’s remarkably easy to forget that God is in the world.
And that reminds me of a story I like a great deal better.
One fine summer day, the great Ukrainian Hassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, called his disciples to him and said that he had an urgent announcement to make to all the Jews of Berditchev.
“But Rabbi,” said one of the disciples, “it’s market day, the busiest day of the week! Can’t this announcement wait ‘til Shabbas?”
“No!” the rebbe insisted, shaking his head from side to side so emphatically that his side-curls waved in the air. “Now, this minute. As soon as possible!”
And so the rebbe’s disciples ran through the streets of Berditchev, insisting that all the market stalls should be covered and all the shops shuttered and everyone should come immediately to hear the rebbe’s announcement.
The Jews of Berditchev loved their rebbe, but they were nonetheless vexed. “What’s so important it can’t wait?” they grumbled. “A Jew doesn’t feed a family by listening to his rebbe make announcements. He has to earn a living!”
Nonetheless, they trudged to the town square where they found their rebbe standing on a soapbox. He waited for them to quiet down then he said this:
“I am very pleased to announce to you, Jews of Berditchev . . . that God is in the world!” And then, as many Hassidim do, he began to dance with great joy.
For a moment or two, the Berditchev Jews were taken aback and wondered if they’d heard correctly. But then, as the rabbi’s meaning began to dawn on them, they too began to dance. By the time the people of Berditchev danced their way back to the marketplace, sure enough, many of them found God there, waiting for them.
In this story, we find the essence of Jewish mysticism. The rebbe implores his community to step out of their busy distracted lives – where prayers are said by rote and ideals are compromised as a matter of course – and feel the Divine Presence.
It is also the essence of Yom Kippur, which asks us to do the very same thing. It is a day separate from our secular lives, a chance to reflect and renew our acquaintance with the spiritual. When we forget what is sacred in life – and we all do – it’s not because cosmic reality has changed, but because we stopped paying attention.
I often think of these two stories when people come to me – as they often do – to say “Rabbi, I’m having trouble believing in God” or simply, “I don’t believe in God.”
And my answer is usually pretty much the same. “Tell me, what God don’t you believe in? Because it’s probably one I don’t believe in, either…The first thing you should know is, your doubts are healthy – and thoroughly Jewish. Let’s study Jews who, for centuries, have struggled with the same issues.”
The turning away from God is a classic Jewish phenomenon and the best evidence for this fact is Yom Kippur itself. On this day of repentance, we speak of teshuvah – of spiritual return. Judaism assumes that each and every one of us needs to make teshuvah on this day – that each and every one of us has drifted away from God – which to me mostly means, drifting away from the essence of our souls, the divine spark within us and in the world – and needs to wrestle his or her way back.
I use the word “wrestle” quite deliberately here, for the word “Yisrael” literally means “one who wrestles with God.” It comes from the story of the biblical Jacob wrestling with a divine being. We are B’nai Yisrael, the children of God wrestlers, and God wrestlers ourselves. As your rabbi, I have the same struggles as many of you, wrestling with God in my own unique way.
Many of us, for instance, struggle with the Torah because it presents a God most of us don’t recognize in the real world. The God of the Torah is a loquacious conversationalist, who finds the time to argue with Job about metaphysics.
He strikes down the impertinent, rewards those who grovel before him (sometimes) and orders the Israelites to slaughter all of their Midianite prisoners, including the women — except for the virgins and children whom he orders enslaved. Not everyone is comfortable with all that. (And we have thousands of years of commentary on all of this to take into consideration).
Then there is our liturgy, which is loaded with metaphors that personify God – the High Holiday prayers’ central images are of Avinu Malkeinu, our Father and King. While these ancient images of God may work for some of us, others may struggle with them.
So how can this Father, this King – this Parent and Sovereign as it’s now translated – allow so much suffering? What kind of Sovereign allows the strong to persecute the weak every single day, all over the world? What kind of Parent sends Hurricane Matthew through the Carribean and the American Southeast, killing hundreds of his children? Or, for that matter, allows our dear, sweet Beverly neighbor, Riley Fessenden, “Riley Rocks”, to be stricken with fatal cancer at such a young age?
The Jewish mystics recognize that there is much brokenness in the world and we are here to help in its repair. One version of Kabbalah’s creation myth comes from the 16th century mystic Isaac Luria. (I use the word “myth” as Joseph Campbell did, to signify a story that offers “clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life.”) In this myth God is Eyn Sof, without end, and contracts to make space in which to create the universe. And into this space vessels are filled with divine light so powerful that the vessels shatter – a cosmic catastrophe, a big bang, if you will.
Yes, there is brokenness. But shards of light can be found everywhere, and we humans are here to find them, and return them to their source, to do a kind of cosmic repair of the universe and divine unity. This is the true meaning of the term tikkun olam, world repair.
As my mentor, Rabbi Art Green, writes: “We do not deny the absurdity of life. No human being, especially no Jews, living in our times, could do that… We have seen the depths of human cruelty and the destructive power of nature…We refuse to give into hopelessness. The struggle for faith and the refusal to give into despair are one and the same.”
Where will this struggle for faith lead us? Ah, that’s up to each and every one of us God wrestlers. Is God Avinu — an intimate, loving parent? Or is God Malcheinu, a distant, demanding sovereign? Is God Dayan Emet, the true judge? Or is God HaRachaman, the compassionate one? Is God more like a person, or is God Ein Sof, without end? Or, do we choose related to something else or none of the above?
In truth, all of these concepts of God, however disparate and seemingly contradictory, are one. The ancient rabbis say that God is like a statue that we may perceive from an infinite number of different directions, and from each perspective, we perceive something new.
The mystics teach that the universe is like a garment for the divine and surrounded by divinity. Different metaphors for God help us relate to this eternal divinity in human terms – in different and meaningful ways – but they in and of themselves are not God.
Albert Einstein wrote, “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
When we say Shema Yisrael – Listen O Israel, God, our God, is one – we are bearing witness to this divine unity. In a world that seems so fragmented, and so torn apart, it is important to remind ourselves that there is divinity everywhere.
On this day, and this day alone, we recite aloud the second line of the Shema: Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam va-ed, blessed is God’s holy name and kingdom, for eternity. On every other occasion, we whisper it, after reciting aloud the first line, Shema Yisrael. Why? Because, say the mystics, today is the day we remind ourselves, loud and clear, that we are part of the divine unity.
God’s “kingdom” is right here and God is right here – not up in heaven, pulling our strings like some master puppeteer – but in this world, within us, within all creation. When we say Baruch shem kavod aloud, we are claiming our place in the universe, and accepting all the responsibilities that go with that claim.
If God is everywhere, in everything, then the potential to encounter the divine is present at every moment. Eating, conversation, work – seemingly mundane activities – have the potential to be made holy. The great mystic, teacher, and activist Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that, “God is hiding in the world. Our task is to let the divine emerge from our deeds.”
It only takes a moment to notice our breath, look at a sunrise, smile at a stranger passing by, or count a blessing. It only takes a moment to be in the moment. But we all know that this isn’t easy. A kind of teshuvah (spiritual return) to which we re-commit at Yom Kippur could be taking such moments. What would the world be like if we all made a whole year of holy moments like these, to let the divine emerge from our deeds?
Highlighting the moral dimension of this mystical teaching, Art Green, student of Heschel explains that, “The only value of monotheism is to make you realize that all beings, including every creature, and that means the rock and the blade of grass in your garden as well as your pet lizard and your human neighbor next door, are all one in origin. You come from the same place..(and) Therefore – and this is the “payoff” line, the only one that really counts:
Treat them that way! . . . That is what it means to be a religious human being.”
All of this brings me back to the theme at which I’ve been hammering away for the last ten days: Relationships matter. All relationships — with ourselves, with our community, with humanity, with all life. God is in these relationships. Our task, as Jews, is beautifully described by Rav Kook, in the fourth melody of his Fourfold song: we “unite with all existence, with all creatures and with all worlds” and with all of them, we sing.
And so, I invite you to sing with me now, the fourfold song. If you managed to stay awake through any of my previous sermons, you were probably wondering when I’d get to it. Because I’ve used it throughout these high holidays as our guide.
On Rosh Hashanah we discussed the Song of the Self and how it differs from the discordant song of selfishness. We discussed the Song of the Nation, and how the ancient ties shared by people in this sanctuary can lead to a unique intimacy, friendship, and sense of belonging – and our congregation’s plans to further increase, and deepen, our relationships and connections. And last night we considered our obligation to sing the Song of Humanity, however difficult we may find that melody in today’s world, afflicted with “othering” and divisiveness.
On this day of teshuvah, of return and transformation, we open ourselves to the unity of all, and even we are not naturally mystics, to think about how this theology can still affect how we live our lives. And I am going to ask you to join with me now in reciting the Four Fold Song with me.
There is a person who sings the song of the Self. He finds everything, his complete spiritual satisfaction, within himself.
And there is a person who sings the song of the Nation. She steps forward from her private self, which she finds narrow and insufficiently developed. She yearns for the heights. She clings with a sensitive love to the entirety of the Jewish nation and sings with it its song. She shares in its pains, is joyful in its hopes, speaks with exalted and pure thoughts regarding its past and its future, investigates its inner spiritual nature with love and a wise heart.
There is a person whose soul is so broad that it expands beyond the border of Israel. It sings the song of humanity. This soul constantly grows broader with the exalted totality of humanity and its glorious image. He yearns for humanity’s general enlightenment. He looks forward to its supernal perfection. From this source of life, he draws all of his thoughts and insights, his ideals and visions.
And there is a person who rises even higher until she unites with all existence, with all creatures, and with all worlds. And with all of them, she sings. This is the person who, engaged in the Chapter of Song every day, is assured that she is a child of the World-to-Come.
And there is a person who rises with all these songs together in one ensemble so that they all give forth their voices, they all sing their songs sweetly, each supplies its fellow with fullness and life: the voice of happiness and joy, the voice of rejoicing and tunefulness, the voice of merriment and the voice of holiness.
The song of the self, the song of the people, the song of humanity, the song of the world, all merge in this person, at all times, in every hour.
And this full comprehensiveness rises to become the song of holiness, the song of God, the song of Israel, in its full strength and beauty, in its full authenticity and greatness. The name “Israel” stands for shir-el, the song of God. It is a simple song, a twofold song, a threefold song, and a fourfold song. It is the Song of Songs of Solomon, Shlomo, which means peace or wholeness. It is the song of the King, in whom is wholeness, Shalom.
We take good care of ourselves, we take good care of others. We feel some special connection to our own Tribe, perhaps; maybe we feel called to heal the whole wide world. We sing, adding our voices to all the others in the choir.
My prayer for the year to come is that Rav Kook will be our teacher, and that we will sing the Fourfold Song loud enough for others to hear, and to join in. May it be a song of wholeness, a song of integrity and a song of peace, shalom.
Gemar Hatimah tovah, may you be sealed for a good new year.