Yom Kippur 5780: Rabbi Greg Wolfe
G’mar chatima tova – may each of you, all of our friends and family, and all the world be sealed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet year.
On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the way in which we can learn from the Prophet Jeremiah how to navigate difficult times, remembering that when we are feeling overwhelmed with the day’s news, the Holy One of Blessings trusts us to be able to bring a tikkun, a healing, to our broken world. And remembering, when we engage in that holy work, that we are not alone. The Holy Shechinah walks with us at every step, lifting us up when we are tired, consoling us when we feel down, and rejoicing in our every step forward.
Tonight/Today, however, is Yom Kippur. It is a day, as Rabbi Alan Lew of blessed memory once famously said, when on our holiest day, we read a 600 page book aloud. Are we crazy?
More seriously, Yom Kippur is a day of prayer. But what is prayer and why should we spend this precious day sitting here intoning words in a language that most of us don’t understand? Shouldn’t we spend the day outdoors, filled with birds singing, creeks running free and children laughing? Emily Dickinson once famously wrote:
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.
Maybe she was right. . . . . Anyone agree with me? No, this is not the end of the sermon, just the end of the beginning.
I want to share two memories of Yom Kippur, both many years in the past.
Thirty years ago, to the day, just after I graduated from law school, Margaret and I were living in the Bay Area. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t in school and I had nowhere to go for the High Holidays. I didn’t know enough to ask any of the synagogues in the Bay Area whether I could attend services for a reduced rate; all I knew was that we couldn’t afford the hundreds of dollars that a ticket would cost. So on Yom Kippur morning, I went up to Tilden Park above Berkeley and sat on a ridge overlooking the Bay. I thought about the year that had passed and the year that was coming. Most of all, though, I listened. I listened to the wind and I listened to my heart. And, for one of the first times in my life, I consciously listened to my soul. When I returned home, I felt somehow cleansed and free. I was puzzled, because I had not gone to services. But in a more important way, I had; in the original sanctuary of the Holy Blessed One. Emily Dickinson would have understood – and approved.
Probably ten or fifteen years earlier, I remember a Yom Kippur when I was still in high school. I was filled with emotion about the Shoah and filled with a desire to honor those who were murdered. So for the first time in my life, I stayed in the sanctuary to say Yizkor. There was an elderly couple standing in the back of the sanctuary, in the seats that you didn’t have to pay an arm and a leg to reserve. Their names were Marj and Stanley Beckey, and their memories are a blessing. They had both survived Auschwitz. They looked at me with concern and said: “What are you doing here? Your parents are still alive, thank G’d.” I told them that I wanted to say Kaddish for those who had perished in the Shoah, and a wistful smile came over each of their faces. They said, “Come stand with us.”
As we prayed Yizkor, there was a light that shone around them. At the time, I thought it was just an artifact of the sunlight coming through the windows. Now, I think it was their inner light, shining the in the darkness, expressing their gratitude at having survived and their hope for the future, their hope that they too would someday be remembered. It was truly the light of the Holy Shechinah.
I can already hear your thoughts. “Those are nice stories, but they don’t explain why we’re sitting here for a full day.” In fact, the first story suggests that we should go outside and listen to the trees, the birds and the children, for that is true prayer.
There’s a lot of truth to those thoughts; indeed, I often have them myself. But let me share why I think we’re all sitting here in this room and why we return, year after year after year.
The Ba’al Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of the Hassidic movement, taught his disciples to focus on the words of the prayers, even if they didn’t know what the words meant. He taught that the mere fact of reading those words, the inchoate yearning for connection with the Divine, was the essence of prayer. And sometimes, sometimes, such yearning and desire for connection allows a person to see the sparks of Divinity that are hidden in the prayer. And that is a gift.
This is a deep teaching.
Prayer is not reading, at least in the way we often read. We read a blog post to be entertained, we read journals for work to be informed, we read novels to be swept away into a world of our imagination. If we try to read the machzor in any of these ways, we will be disappointed. It is not entertaining, does not really provide any information and certainly doesn’t take us into an imaginary world that is even half as interesting as the worlds created by JK Rowling, JRR Tolkien or John LeCarre. On its face, therefore, prayer is boring.
But prayer is not really about reading; reading is merely a vehicle. Prayer is about desire, about yearning, about seeking for connection with Someone or Something that transcends us. Or maybe, just maybe, it is seeking for connection with our deepest selves. Regardless, prayer begins with what Abraham Joshua Heschel described as “awe”: a sense that we are each of us a miracle. And from that awe, we yearn to connect with the miracles that are all around us. Look around you and what do you see in each and every seat: a miracle.
If prayer is a way to express desire or yearning, it is also a way to express love. Think of a moment when a loved one went on a long trip and you went to meet them when they returned at the airport or train station. The moment that you saw their face in the crowd, your desire, your yearning was transformed into love. And that is what we’re doing today.
Yom Kippur – and in fact, all of our holidays – are about seeking a glimpse of the Beloved. Each of us has a different, unique spark of the Divine implanted in us; it is what makes us unique and truly human. Each of us resonates to a different pitch on the Divine scale. But all of us yearn for the experience of transcending ourselves, of going deep inside, of becoming whole, becoming shalem. And those experiences are experiences of the Divine.
Prayer is not about reading words or beautiful music. We are so fortunate here at CBH to have gifted musicians to enliven our worship. But prayer is not about our music; instead, it is about the music of our souls. Beautiful music helps us tune into the music of our souls.
Prayer is about paying attention, not only to the words of the machzor but also to the words that arise from our hearts and souls. In this way, prayer is like meditation; whatever arises is what needs to arise at that moment. The words of prayer, those that come from the machzor and those that come from the heart, are like migrating birds, showing us the direction that we must fly in the coming year. Ignoring them means that we will spend the winter alone.
Marj and Stanley Beckey knew the secret of prayer. The light that shone around them was the light that they brought into the world, having known the deepest depths of darkness. And it was that yearning for connection, that ability to tune into the frequency of the Divine, that brought them peace. And they – without words – were able to share that beauty with me. And now, I am able to share that beauty with you.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the 19th century Hassidic master, taught that prayer is the bridge between our everyday lives and our souls. He says that – most of the time – we’re so busy making a living, shuttling the kids to this activity and the next, making dinner, that we forget that we even have a soul. She doesn’t forget us but we forget her. And so we wander apart, like that longtime friend who we really want to call but can’t find time for.
And then, Rebbe Nachman says, on Shabbat and on the holidays we remember our friend. We remember the sound of her voice, her laugh, the way that she wrinkles her nose ever so slightly when she is telling us something important. And in remembering her, we remember ourselves, we remember who we are deep inside. We remember the person who we thought we would be as an adult when we were 13 or 18; we remember the people who we were as children or teenagers now that we are much older. In remembering who we are, who we were and who we can be, we come home.
My holy friends, prayer is not what is written in the machtzor, no matter how beautiful the poetry. It is not the lovely melodies – whether Kol Nidre or Avinu Malkeinu – that resonate deep in our souls. It is – instead – the art of paying attention to who we really are, not the person we show to the world, but the person whom we show to one or two people in our entire lives. It is the knowledge that I learned in Tilden Park, the beauty that the Beckeys shared with me; it is the art of simply being the people whom we were created to be.
When we truly pray – and my blessing and hope is that each one of us will have a moment, just a moment, of real prayer during this long day – we are able to come face to face, panim el panim, to the Source of All Blessings. She may not appear to you as some sort of transcendent Divinity; instead, she may appear just as the person sitting next to you. But when the Holy One of Blessings appears, the world changes. Just for a moment, there will be a sparkling in the air, a fragrance – however faint and sweet – of the Garden of Eden. And in the magic and holiness of that moment, may each of us – and all the world – be sealed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet new year.
G’mar chatima tova and may this truly be G’d’s will for us. Keyn y’hi ratzon.