Yom Kippur 5775: Beni Wajnberg

“On inviting the sacred into our lives: religion seen as a microwave”

Beni Wajnberg
Yom Kippur sermon, 5775
Congregation Bet Haverim
Davis, CA

It was a cold and dark day. Every day was a cold and dark day there. The darkest place on Earth. The place that made every single person forget that they were people. Death, murder, pain.// Death, murder, pain and tears.// That is all that one would hear.// A dreadful silence, broken by screams.// More silence.//

Elie Wiesel wrote a book based on a personal experience that he had in a setting just like that. A real setting. A real cold and dark day//, during the shoah.// Only in such a dark moment of the history of humankind, only at a time that evil reigns over good, could such a dark experience have taken place.// According to him, “inside the kingdom of night, I witnessed a strange trial. Three rabbis—all erudite and pious men—decided one winter evening to indict God for allowing God’s children to be massacred. I remember: I was there, and I felt like crying. But nobody cried.” Three rabbis formed a beit din, a rabbinic court to judge God for crimes against creation and humankind. The rabbis met for several nights. They heard witnesses; they gathered evidence. And they finally came up with a unanimous verdict: God Almighty, the Holy One, was found guilty of negligence. But the story was not over yet. The most surprising part of the story was yet to happen. After what Wiesel called an “infinity of silence,” those rabbis, the ones who had just found God guilty, looked at the sky. “It’s time for evening prayers,” they said. The rabbis then got up, and davvened Maariv.

This story is powerful, mighty, scary and upsetting. Aside from all the pain, there is something beautiful in that story – something that characterizes who we are as a people. It is not necessarily the fact that the three rabbis rabbis understood God as the one responsible for those atrocities. The theology of reward and punishment, in my view, became irrelevant after the shoah. The idea of a God, who sits on a throne and decides whom to kill (or let die) and to whom to give life to seems at odds with our painful collective narrative. But there is still something precious about what those rabbis did, something that connects us to them. After they condemned God, they prayed. They davvened Maariv.

What do I mean by a connection between us and those rabbis? It may be that many (or even most) of us do not yet have a routine of prayer, like those rabbis did – and that is ok. But if we analyze what their prayer meant, we will be able to see how is it that we too can relate to that.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that prayer is an insight, that raises our awareness of the mystery of reality, and of the sense of the ineffable (the sense of that which is beyond our capacity of expression). “Prayer helps us to take notice of what is beyond our sight, beyond our reason,” he wrote. “As long as we are blind to the mystery of being, the way to prayer is closed to us.”// What he meant by this is that, if we take for granted any of the hundreds of sunrises that we experience in our lifetime, there is no real reason to thank God for creation. The same thing regarding the blessing over bread, if we only see bread as moistened flour that is kneaded and then baked. However, prayer is a way of calling our attention away from our automatic routine. We invite the experience of the sacred, of the Awesome One into our lives. We create opportunities to relate to God, and we invite this mystery, this sense of majestic Amazement, into every breath that we take.

That is what the rabbis did in Elie Wiesel’s recollection. They were experiencing a reality that was so painful, so dark, that led them to judge God. But that did not keep them from engaging with the sacred, from engaging with the sacred that exists everywhere and inside everyone of us. And that, that is a lesson that those rabbis taught Wiesel, and that we hope Wiesel will teach us. Regardless of what happens, regardless of what obstacles one may face to engage and interact with the Awesome, with the Sublime, with the Mystery of Mysteries, communication is never lost. Sometimes, it seems to be on stand-by.

I once learned from a teacher that a good way of attracting people’s attention is to make a weird and bold statement, and then to unveil what we mean by it. So here it goes; I will summarize the whole sermon so far in one weird and bold statement:// Religion is a microwave.//

Nothing in nature is still, or static. Everything moves. If we would use the most powerful technology, we would be able to see that the chairs in which you are sitting, together with this bimah and even our own bodies and each of its cells// are all moving. Every molecule vibrates. Now, a microwave heats our daily food by changing the frequency of vibration of the water molecules in our leftovers. In other words, our food has water that moves in a specific frequency. The microwave changes that frequency, and through that change, it generates heat.

You could say that the natural state of food is cold. That is, after you cook a meal, it will change energy with the environment and eventually, it will get cold. Heating it up is a revolutionary action. We are changing its condition – from cold to warm – based on two single factors: we can use a microwave, and we want to eat warm food. We can, and we want. Therefore, we change. We can, we want and we change – in this order.

This is, I think, the big lesson of the rabbis of Elie Wiesel’s recollection. It does not matter how cold your food seems to be, it does not matter how hard and dark your life feels. It does not matter how broken, shattered you are. It does not matter how disconnected you are [or how disconnected you feel] of the sense of meaning and purpose. The microwave represents our capacity to change lives, including our own. We can change the state of our affairs, just as a microwave can heat food. Using the metaphor of the microwave, we can warm up our spirits by inviting change into our lives, seeking a closer relationship with God and with the energy around us. The doors to the Ineffable, to that which is beyond our capacity of expression, to the sacred, to the mystery of mysteries are always there – just like the doors of a microwave. We need to want to see those doors, we need to open them and invite the sacred into our lives. We need to hit “start” so that we can warm up our lives, just as we need to do so in order to heat our food.

It is hard to do so; it is hard to have a constant high level of mindfulness. As a society that functions at such a fast pace, we started to take everything for granted. We have forgotten the importance of searching for a higher level of purpose in our lives.

There are many ways that this sense of “spiritual atrophy” manifests itself. It is hard to notice sacredness and purpose in our routines, if we have dried up our capacity of transcendence, if we have forgotten how great it feels to notice purpose, substance and spirituality in our routines. The sacred is still out there – we just need to invite it into our perception, into our lives. Developing a sense of mindfulness and prayer is a way of achieving this goal. Inviting more elements of Jewish practice into our routines is also a powerful way of cultivating our awareness of the sacred as well. A single blessing can make a huge difference: it can transform the common, or the ordinary, into the special, into the transcendent. All of these are ways to invite a higher level of mindfulness into our lives. One other powerful example of this has to do with our relationships with others, and how we can make them even more special – and sacred – than they are.

A Pew research found out that the average number of Facebook friends, for adult users of the website, is 338. That is an impressive number. Could it be that we are really relating more to people, that all of the iPhones, iPads and MacBooks are really enhancing our relationship-building skills?

Professor Matthew Brashears, of Cornell University, found out the number of close friends that adults have on average. If we have 338 Facebook friends according to the Pew research, Brashears found that we only have 2 close friends. Quality of relationships and relationship-building seems not to be increasing; in fact, it may even be diminishing. We have many virtual friends, but few real and actual friendships. We “like” statuses more than we like people.//

If you love or have ever loved someone – a partner, a friend, a parent, a child – you know how amazing it is what you feel for each other. How can one describe what love is? Is it the feeling of protection and belonging? Is it the overwhelming feeling that you get from looking in the eyes of the one you love? Is it the sense of intimate bonding? We can’t describe what we feel, because the minute that we try to do so, we are already talking about a whole different thing. Love can’t be described. Love just is. Our capacity to love is like the microwave: it is able to transform our routines, transform our frequency of vibration, our state of being. Love invites more warmth into our lives, invites more interactions with the sacred into our routines. But love needs to happen in person, face to face. The Torah teaches us that Moses is described as being so close to God, closer than anyone else, because he spoke face to face to God. Maybe we should remind ourselves what true and close relationships look like. We too need to establish face to face relationships. We too need to establish sacred relationships.

We are growing lonely and isolated in our society. The only thing we seem to want is to get from point A to point B, as fast as possible, and check our Facebook when we get there. That is affecting the way that we drive – “Oh. I didn’t see you there. I guess I can’t just pretend I am alone in the freeway!” That is also affecting our human relationships. I have noticed that, sometimes, whenI go out for a run – alone,// by myself// – I have nothing else on my mind besides the space ahead of me. I have noticed how hard it gets to notice smells, or to take deep breath. But life is not and should not be a marathon.// Life is about living, experiencing and loving.

So let us stop. Let us breathe.// If Heschel was right, if we can invite the sacred into our lives, we need to calm down. Think of this as an opportunity. Use this day of fasting to think of how your relationships – your real relationships// – are, and what can you do to make them better. Change.// Return.// Return to being an aware and mindful person.// Return to the mindfulness level that you have the potential of having.//

Maybe, you will be able to stop using your phone over dinner.// Maybe you will be able to turn your electronics off for a couple of hours and spend some good quality time with the people that you love.// Maybe you can commit to take the opportunity of hiking once in a while, and watch the sun setting – as a reminder, as Heschel would say, of the importance of opening your eyes to see the mystery of being.// Maybe we, as a society, will learn to love more – more than ever. Maybe we can change society, one person at a time.// Then, and only then, we will live by the words of the Psalmist: “Let all that breathes praise God.”// Then, and only then, we will be able to heat up our spirits through our relationship with the Holy One, with the Microwave of Microwaves.// Then, and only then, we will have learned the lesson of the rabbis taught to us by Elie Wiesel:// no matter how disconnected and how broken our relationships and our surroundings seem to be,// we too can stop,// look at the stars on the sky// and pray.

1: Elie Wiesel, The Trial of God, p.xxv
2: Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mans Quest for God, pp. 62-3
3: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/02/03/6-new-facts-about-facebook/
4: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378873311000566
5: Psalm 150