I. Where to Begin
This holy night. This amazing, swaying, chanting, weeping, hoping, not-breathing, intense night.
This year. This big, wondering, worrisome, full-of-potential, awe-inducing, blessed-fraught, year.
Where to begin on this holiest night of the year?
Should we focus on the big picture: our precious, fragile world?
Should we focus on our homeland Israel: glorious and broken in countless ways?
Should we focus on our home here in America: beset by societal chaos and selfishness?
Should we focus, instead, on our own synagogue community as we, together, enter a year of transition?
How can we be a part of any of the necessary healing if we try to do it all? As the Talmud teaches, “Tafasta Merubah, Lo Tafasta – If you try to grasp it all, you grasp nothing. (TB Yoma 80a)”
But how dare we choose one urgent focus at the expense of all the others? As Pirkei Avot teaches, “Lecheshe’efaneh, eshne, shema lo tipaneh – do not say ‘when I have more time,’ because you may not have more time. (PA 2:4)”
But. If we point to the racism and greed in the White House, will we thereby ignore Syrian refugees? If we point to football and basketball players and owners taking the knee in protest of police brutality against black men and women in America, do we focus less on our role as American Jews in pushing Israel to end the occupation and to reject Fundamentalist Judaism’s stranglehold on our homeland’s Jewishness? If we focus on our own local communal dynamic, do we cease to see the world beyond these beautiful sanctuary walls? And if we spend all this time looking at the things outside ourselves, what then of the holy work of personal introspection?
I believe we would do well to hold onto three starting points as we stand together before the Heavenly Gates
- Tonight, each of us, as Merle Fled so eloquently reminds us, is “naked, without disguise, without embellishment, shivering, ridiculous.” Every one of us is vulnerable. That’s true every night, but tonight we admit it publicly. We acknowledge it. So, accept yourself – and each other.
- As the great American Rabbi Rabbi Abraham Joshua said, in his own urgent day: “This is no time for neutrality.” Let us also quote the holy words of Theodor Geisel, Dr. Suess, placed in the mustache-mouthed Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better, it’s not.” Less rhythmically, but holy too, Jewish tradition admonishes us: “Bemakom she’ein anashim – hishtadel lihiyot ish – in a place where people are not acting like people, be a person. (PA 2:4)” So, be a human being.
- If you feel immobilized by it all – or worse, not motivated because it hasn’t touched you directly yet – consider the philosophy of Paul Farmer, the humanitarian best known for bringing health care to under-resourced areas in developing countries like Haiti. His approach, “pragmatic solidarity,” teaches that we dare not depend upon piety and good-will if we are to truly help those in need. We should do good because chaos knows no boundaries, and we have learned that if you do not help someone else, the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller will be frighteningly true: If you do not speak out when others are hurt, there will one day be no one left to speak for you. In other words: caring for someone else is in your best interest. So, care for every other.
That’s a whole lot of quotes. Let’s boil it all down. To review, these are our three starting points:
- Accept yourself and each other.
- Be a human being.
- Care for every other.
II. What’s it all about
Dear friends, treasured sisters and brothers, these are the words I wish to share with you tonight, and the ones I wish to leave with you as my final Yom Kippur message: Accept yourself and each other. Be a human being. Care for every other.
Perhaps the simplest way of saying this is: you are so very powerful and it is not about you. You are, as Heschel put it, “an image of God, a fraction of God’s infinite power at your disposal.” It’s not about me. And it’s not about you. The gift of your soul is meant to be larger than your sense of self.
As Stanley Martin Lieber (aka Stan Lee) taught, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The inherent power every person wields must never be underestimated nor squandered. No act is neutral, not even inaction! Deeds matter, words matter — you matter, because you can act with Divine power on behalf of someone else.
The deepest Truth of all? It isn’t about God, either.
If you think that is a radical notion, or worse (perhaps better, depending on your viewpoint) – heresy! – to say that our holy moment, Yom Kippur eve, is not about God, consider this teaching by Rabbi Shai Held on Heschel’s understanding of the biblical Prophets:
…One can picture the prophet focused on God: ‘The prophet is guided, not by what he feels, but rather by what God feels. In moments of intense sympathy for God, the prophet is moved by the pathos of God, Who is disillusioned by God’s People.’ In other words… the prophet transcends himself by turning to God, who transcends [Godself] by turning to Israel.”
This God with whom we spend the next many intentional hours has deep feelings. We know this to be true, because that divine spark with which we were made is a fiercely feeling thing. The pounding in your heart when you hear of a school shooting or an even-stronger hurricane, the stirring of your soul when you witness the grandeur of a 95-year-old Holocaust Survivor calling out for racial justice, the tears in your eyes when your heart explodes with love, or with grief – that is God. In you. In between. In us. In everyone. And remember: God’s disillusionment is not for God’s own sake. God is most disappointed when we do not act kindly toward each other. Even for God, it’s not about God.
Let’s take a step back: Is all this talk of God a projection of what we feel or what wish were true onto some imagined heavenly being? Or is the Divine a truth we’ve somehow discerned through countless generations of seeking ancestors? Does it really matter which answer seems more right to you? Regardless of the reality of God, we know, deep in our souls, that the best, deepest way to be is to be together, to be concerned for each other, to care for the world, hand in hand, heart in heart. Is the focus on caring for each other dependent upon your theology? God forbid.
And, if these words can touch us in one significant way tonight, it will be because they helped us remember that to be holy is to transcend our own selfs and turn to someone else.
So: Accept yourself and each other. Be a human being. Care for every other.
III. A Pesishcha Poem
A famous teaching of Reb Simcha Bunim of Pesishcha:
“A person should always carry two scraps of paper, one in each pocket. On one should be written: For my sake was the world created. On the other: I am but dust and ash.”
Here we stand,
scraps of parchment in each pocket,
unbound pages full of mid-sentence pauses
clauses and paragraphs in the ongoing project
of authoring the books of our lives…
one pocket full of purpose,
one pocket empty of pride…
Or, perhaps, different aspects of every stride…
…each step a weave of humility and holy purpose,
the knowledge that we hold in our twin hip pockets
the joyful certainty of being necessary,
the sobering truth of limited time.
IV. Build from Love
A long time ago, there was a monastery that had fallen on some hard times. Living as a monk can be hard, and the monastery was built at the top of a mountain, and fewer people over time were coming to visit the holy community. Even fewer were taking the vows and joining the order. The brothers were losing hope. One day, one of the monks was walking with his friend the rabbi, sharing his worry about the situation.
The rabbi gasped and looked at his friend and said, “Brother, that’s terrible news! The monastery cannot close! I’ve heard tell that one of you is the Messiah!” The monk was shocked, and asked which brother the rabbi was referring to. The rabbi responded: “I don’t truly know. All I know is that it is one of you.”
The monk returned home, and shared what he had heard with his brothers. And, since none of them knew which of them was the Messiah, they began treating each other as if every other was the Messiah.
Word of this extraordinary community, where every person behaved kindly toward each other, quickly spread, and little by little, people returned again to the monastery, some even taking the vows themselves, until it became a thriving home of faith once more.
There’s a song I wrote a long time ago. It feels like a very, very long time ago, but I know, because I held my baby girl in my arms when it poured out of me, that this song is only fifteen and one-half years old. It is my interpretation of the words of the Psalms, “Olam Chesed Yibaneh – You Must Build this World from Love” and if I might be so bold to ask that my time as rabbi in our community could have one lasting legacy, it would be that we came one inch closer to this verse’s fulfilment, that we will be kind to each other, that we seek redemption through our relationships with each other.
I believe the way toward Building this World from Love, a Divine imperative more urgent than ever before, contains three steps: Accept yourself and each other. Be a human being. Care for every other. Because, my precious community, if you accept yourself and each other, and if you act as a human being, and if you care for every other, then you will learn to love yourself, each other, and every other. This world will then be built by love. Your love.
We dare not dare too little. Nor dare we wait. Not only is our moment no time for neutrality, ours is a time where kindness is in short supply, especially in social discourse. We end up discussing the latest bullying presidential tweet, the latest group marginalized from military service or threatened with deportation, the latest this, the latest that, all successful in being more shocking than the last, until we use vulgar language to defend women and girls, and we become desensitized from fetishized American gun violence, an epidemic that shook Emeryville just yesterday. Yet today all we remember is the resulting highway traffic.
Now is the time, and Love is the only way. The recent national chaos is actually part of an ongoing disease: American law and culture valuing rugged individualism over mutual concern.
If I see the Messiah in the eyes of someone who doesn’t look or sound like me, I cannot help but treat them with kindness, with love. It is righteous to do so. It is also in my best interest, because the Messiah coming is a better day for everyone. So it is up to us, Aleinu, to help everyone have a better day. It’s a virtuous cycle, a strategy of pragmatic solidarity, where everyone wins.
It can be both exhausting and exalting to live in this way. Mostly both. So, my friends, let’s put our hands in our pockets. Both pockets. Remember that the world was created for your sake. And that the same is true for the person right next to you, the person with whom you disagree, and every other human being whose soul beats with God’s.
I came across a poem entitled “Kindness” written by Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian American poet, in a book called The Idealist’s Survival Kit, by Allesandra Pigni. I love the book, and I loved the poem. I knew, as soon as I saw it, that I’d share it tonight. But, just as quickly, it occurred to me that someone would hear me say “Palestinian American” and forget everything else I’d said. So I hesitated before including her words. And then I realized that I’d hesitated. I hesitated before sharing beautiful words, artful phrases, and hope. For no good reason. Because I was afraid of being judged, or misremembered, because my love of Israel would become suspect to someone else. And all of that internal self-stoppage also suddenly interrupted the very thing that drew me to her poetry, the very things I preach about most: Kindness. Love. The Messiah will only come when I can see her in a Palestinian poet’s eyes, and when she sees the Messiah in mine.
And so, we close with Naomi Shihab Nye’s kindness.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
Catches the thread of all sorrows
And you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
May we experience this year aware of our limited time; devoted to fulfilling all the kind things we dream about for the world.
May we remember that we need to be strong ourselves to give of ourselves.
May we be a family that yearns and aches and sings and acts together.
May we decide to fill every second of life with purpose and love.
May we be so blessed to remember that no matter what, we are never alone.
And, precious friends, when you are done with Yom Kippur, may you live fiercely. And kindly.
May you know, and share, and build from love.