Five years ago, my synagogue, Congregation Adas Emuno, A Reform temple in Leonia, New Jersey, held High Holy Day services without a rabbi, having a cantor serving as our spiritual leader. And our cantor at that time asked lay members of the congregation to help out by composing and delivering sermons on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I was one of the volunteers, and was assigned the sermon for Kol Nidre.
Kol Nidre that year happened to fall on September 17th (my birthday, not that I made a point of pointing that out), and my sermon was entitled Why Yom Kippur? It was posted on our congregational blog, and I’ve provided all the links, if you want to go take a look.
This was the first and the last time that we had lay persons doing High Holy Day sermons, not because they weren’t any good, but because the following year we hired Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz, who has been an outstanding spiritual leader and delivers some of the best d’var torahs I’ve heard in many years.
Be that as it may, I did receive some very nice compliments on my sermon, including one from a Christian minister who read it online. So I thought it would be a good idea to repost the sermon here on my new Times of Israel blog, with Yom Kippur almost upon us. I hope you like it!
A Kol Nidre Message
from Lance Strate
Congregation Adas Emuno
Leonia, New Jersey
for Yom Kippur Evening
September 17, 2010
We are gathered together here at Congregation Adas Emuno to observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. But, you knew that already. Jews all over the world have been gathering together for Yom Kippur. And even those of us who do not observe the holiday know that this is the Day of Atonement, and this is a day when we all feel especially Jewish. Of course, this is also a day when we feel especially hungry, but feeling hungry is simple enough to understand — feeling Jewish, now that’s a bit more complicated. We could spend the entire day discussing what feeling Jewish is all about, but one thing that’s especially Jewish is asking questions. In our tradition, we’re allowed to ask questions, and we’re encouraged to ask questions, so much so that the first religious role that we give to our children is to ask the four questions at Passover. Why is this night different from all other nights?
For millennia, our scholars and spiritual leaders have been asking the fundamental question, how does God want us to live our lives? And in looking to the Torah for answers, they have found themselves asking still more questions, such as, How are we to understand these writings that speak to us from a distant time and place, and how can we apply their messages to contemporary life? And in our tradition, we can even question God. Job asked God why bad things happen to good people. Jonah questioned why the city of Nineveh was spared from divine retribution. Moses wondered why he, of all people, had to be the one to confront the Pharaoh and lead his people to freedom. And in Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye says to God, ” I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”
On Yom Kippur, we are especially chosen, especially Jewish, and especially questioning, as we question ourselves, our actions and our intentions, our mistakes and our wrongdoings. But to be especially Jewish, I believe, we also need to ask, why is this night different from all other nights? Why do we have a Day of Atonement? After all, in our tradition, we can pray at any time, we can repent on any day of the year, God is always listening, and willing to forgive. We don’t have to wait for Yom Kippur to atone. So why do we have Yom Kippur? I believe that is a question worth asking, and I want to share with you what I think the answer might be. I offer this to you as my own thoughts about Jewish spirituality in the modern world, with no intention of imposing them on you, but in the hope that it might help you to ask questions of your own, and arrive at answers that are meaningful to you.
We refer to this time of year as the Days of Awe, with Yom Kippur marking the end of a ten-day period that begins with Rosh Hashanah. And to understand the ending, it helps to begin at the beginning, and Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of beginnings, of In the beginning, Bereishit, Genesis, the Creation of the World. We say that Rosh Hashanah is the Birthday of the World, and by “the World” we don’t just mean the planet Earth. The Torah tells us, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The World, then, refers to all of God’s Creation, or in more contemporary terms, the universe. And whatever our beliefs may be, how can we not stand in awe before a universe that our scientists say is approximately 14 billion years old, and that is at least 92 billion light years in diameter, a single light year being almost 6 trillion miles. And how can we not stand in awe when we consider that we, our planet, our solar system, and our galaxy, are moving at a speed of 1.3 million miles per hour as the universe continues to expand due to the force of the Big Bang that occurred some 14 billion years ago.
But we can also empathize with our ancestors who stood in awe before the immensity of their world, before the power of nature, with its earthquakes, windstorms, tidal waves and volcanoes. And we can understand how they stood in awe before the marvelous beauty of Creation, the night sky glittering down on them, the mountains towering above them, the ocean waves crashing onto the shore, the wind blowing through the trees, and the mystery of life. That sense of wonder as we regard the majesty of Creation was expressed so very well in the 8th Psalm of David:
O Eternal One, our God, how glorious is Your Name in all the earth! whose majesty is set above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and newborns, You deliver strength in the face of adversity, and still the voices of violence and vengeance.
When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your hands, the moon and the stars, which You have established;
What is humanity, that You are mindful of us? Mortal beings, that You think of us?
Yet You have made us but little lower than the angels, and have crowned us with glory and honor.
You have made us caretakers over the works of Your hands; You have put all things at our feet:
Sheep and oxen, all of them, yea, and the beasts of the field;
The birds of the air, and the fish of the sea; all that passes through the paths of the seas.
O Eternal One, our God, how glorious is Your name in all the earth!
Thinking about how small we are in comparison to the immensity of the universe may be enough to put the fear of God into anybody, but fear itself is not what Yom Kippur is all about. The Days of Awe cannot be reduced to shock, or intimidation, for they encompass that sense of wonder at the majesty of the World, and the miracle of our own existence. But the High Holy Days are more than just a reminder of Creation as an event that occurred a long time ago, that came and went at some time in the past, and has long since been over and done with. Creation is an ongoing process that is dynamic, unfolding from one moment to the next. We are riding on the Big Bang, and everything that exists in our expanding universe came from that initial point of Creation, so that we are all made of the same stuff that stars are made of. Or to invoke the Jewish mystical tradition of the Kabbalah, we are reflections of God’s divine light, all of Creation emanates from God’s first action.
In the beginning, there was sound, a form of energy, as God speaks. That’s the Big Bang of the Bible, and we are riding that first utterance to this day. “And God said, let there be light, and there was light.” And the speed of light is the only constant in the universe, as revealed by Albert Einstein in his famous equation, E=MC2, which expresses the idea that everything in the universe is a form of energy. Even things that appear solid and stable to us, including ourselves, are actually a dynamic dance of subatomic particles. We are all made of energy, we are all made of the same stuff as stars, we are all echoes of God’s words and reflections of God’s light.
Central to our faith is the belief in One God, in the unity of the Divine, the wholeness of all that is Holy. And as there is One God, there is One Creation, and so there is an underlying unity that binds everything together in interdependent relationships. Einstein explained that there is no space outside of time, and no time outside of space; there is only the single unity that he called spacetime. And we can understand, then, that Creation is the entirety of spacetime, all of the space that ever was and ever will be, and all of time, past, present, and future. Creation, being made in God’s image, reflects the Oneness of God, and there is also an underlying unity that exists between Creation and Creator. We call Yom Kippur the Day of Atonement, and the word “atone” originates as a contraction of two words, at and one. Yom Kippur is the Day of At-One-Ment, a day when we join as one with all of Creation, and together seek communion with our Creator.
The word universe, with the prefix uni-, speaks of oneness, togetherness, wholeness. But the universe is also diverse, the unity of Creation also includes the quality of difference, the differences between light and darkness, day and night, the heavens and the earth, the land and the sea, plants and animals, male and female, the sacred and the profane. These differences make it possible for all things to change, and grow, and evolve. All forms of life evolve, but so too does the universe itself evolve, as it expands and forms galaxies, and stars, and planets. And it is also the human mind and consciousness that evolves, as we develop new ways of knowing and understanding our world. It’s been said that the Jewish people invented history, as the Torah and the rest of the Bible tells the story of our evolving relationship with God, a story that continues to this day, a story that we all are a part of right here and now, as we have entered the year 5,771. We count the years, as we think of history and evolution as a progression along a straight line, a journey down a road from beginning to middle to end.
But we count the years in two different ways, as we live by two different calendars, the solar calendar that comes to us from the Roman Empire, and our own modified lunar calendar, which we use for religious purposes. And I am certain that every one of you here tonight has either said or heard someone remark that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are very early this year. And in response to that, I want to say to you, it is September that has come very late this year. That is, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur never come early, or late, they come exactly when they are supposed to come, on the first and tenth days of the month of Tishrei. In truth, from a scientific point of view, neither calendar is more real or more true than the other, and all that we can really say is that the High Holy Days are early in relation to the Roman calendar, and that September is late in relation to the Jewish calendar. And I can’t help but wonder if this understanding didn’t have some influence on Einstein as he developed his Theory of Relativity, which states that the passage of time is relative to the speed at which we’re traveling.
We live within different calendars, but within the calendar, we live within two different types of time. There is the idea of time as a line or road, as moving forward and evolving. But we also have the sense of time as a cycle, as a circling around, and revolving. And it is through our religious traditions that we sanctify the circle of life, the cycles of maturity and marriage, of birth and of death. And we celebrate the cycles of the year, the seasonal festivals of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot, and the cycle of Torah readings that end and begin again every Simchat Torah. And we gather together, as we do now, to celebrate the Days of Awe as a time of renewal. These cycles represent a sacred time, separate and distinct from the profane time that we envision as a straight line. These cycles give us the opportunity to connect to the time of Creation itself, which is an ever-renewing process.
Creation intersects with all times, but it exists outside of profane, linear time. Creation is not the year One, or the year Zero; if anything, it is the year Infinity. And if all this makes your head hurt, then I ask you simply to think about those moments in your lives when times seems to slow, or even stand still, when everything seems to stop; moments when it seems like you’re stepping outside of yourself, when you feel like you’re at one with the universe, when you experience Eternity. That experience of timelessness goes hand-in-hand with those feelings of awe and wonder expressed in the 8th Psalm of David, and they often come in response to an encounter with the glories of nature.
We can have these experiences anywhere, and they can come upon us unexpectedly. But our sanctuary and our ceremony are here to help us obtain that sense of oneness, to help us to feel that connection to sacred time. Some of us here tonight may be feeling that sense of connection to Creation and Eternity, some of us may not, but by gathering together we are all lifted up as a congregation, and together we have entered that sacred time. We don’t have to do it alone, and more importantly, we can’t do it alone. You can pray to God by yourself, but you can’t practice Judaism by yourself, and in that sense you can’t be very Jewish by yourself. It takes a village, it takes a minyan, it takes a community to achieve communion. Einstein, with his theory of relativity, said that everything in this universe exists only in relation to everything else. Another of our great sages of the 20th century, Martin Buber, said that everyone in this World exists only in our relationships, our relationships to other people, to other things, and to our God. Therefore, it is not sufficient to atone all alone, we have to atone together.
In the Book of Genesis, not long after the story of Creation, and the story of Adam and Eve, we find the story of the first murder, as Cain kills his brother Abel. And God asks Cain, “Where is Abel, your brother?” God would have known the answer, of course, but the importance is in asking the question, to which Cain responds, “I know not, am I my brother’s keeper?” Through this negative example, the Torah drives home the point that we ought to be our brother’s keeper, that we are responsible for each other. And God then says, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries to me from the ground.” This poetic statement is echoed later, in the Book of Leviticus, in the commandment that says, “You shall not stand idly by your brother’s blood.” In this way, we are commanded to take responsibility, not only for ourselves, but for others.
Just as we gather together to be at one as a community, we gather together to atone as a community. That is why we have Yom Kippur, why we have a Day of Atonement. In our faith, we are our brothers’ keepers, we do not stand idly by, we feel a sense of shame when one of our own is guilty of wrongdoing, and we take responsibility for our family, our friends and neighbors, our congregation and community, our nation and our people, and for humanity and Creation. We are gathered together to atone, not only for ourselves, but for each other, for the mistakes and the sins that we have committed collectively as well as individually, because we are all connected to one another, all responsible for one another. And we are here to repent and commit ourselves to doing better both individually and collectively, because we cannot fight the evils of the world on our own. Only together can we address such problems as poverty and hunger, prejudice and hatred, ignorance and fear, violence and war.
In our tradition, we are not satisfied with the way things are, we are obligated to strive to make things better, to work for progress, growth, and evolution. In our tradition, we don’t believe that this is the best of all possible worlds, we believe that Creation is an unfinished business, and that this is a broken world, God knows that we have experienced just how broken it can be, and that it needs to be repaired. In our tradition, we do not accept the status quo as a matter of fate or predestination, we ask questions, we ask, why?, knowing that Creation is a Book that is still being written. In our tradition, we don’t say, “let it be,” we say, “let me help.”
Everyone is searching for meaning and purpose in a world where we are so overloaded with information, and entertainment, and material things, but in our tradition, the meaning and purpose of our lives was clearly expressed by the prophet Isaiah: “I, God, have called you to righteousness, and have taken you by the hand and kept you. And I have made you into a covenant of the people, and a light unto the nations.” We are here to carry on God’s work, the Creation that began with light, and we are here to continue what God began in the beginning, to heal and repair our broken world. It is a daunting task, sure, but in the words of Rabbi Tarfon, “You do not have to complete the work, but neither are you excused from it.” To which we can add, it is not your responsibility alone to do the work, but it is our responsibility to work together.
I am reminded of the Chanukah song that Peter Yarrow wrote, that was performed by Peter, Paul, and Mary, called “Light One Candle.” The chorus goes, “Don’t let the light go out. It’s lasted for so many years. Don’t let the light go out. Let it shine through our love and our tears.” And so, maybe on this Yom Kippur, during this sacred time, a good question to ask ourselves is, will we let the light go out? Or will we keep it going? How can we work together to strengthen the light of our congregation, so that it can continue to provide warmth and illumination for all of us, and for the generations to come? How can we keep the light of our faith and our people shining so as to fulfill God’s covenant and Isaiah’s prophecy? How can we help to generate the healing light of tikkun olam, and contribute to the light of Creation, the light first kindled by the Creator? How can we make the light that shines within each and every one of us to shine ever more brightly? And how can we bring that light within us together in unity, because when we are gathered together as we are tonight, our light can shine as brightly as the stars.
We are gathered together here at Congregation Adas Emuno because Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the time for us to begin anew.