Yom Kippur, 5781: Rabbi David Aladjem
May Our Glory Shine Together
|Video of Rabbi David Aladjem’s Yom Kippur Sermon||https://youtu.be/RZuJYh-Ys1o|
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 talked about how difficult this past year had been, about how we really need G’d to pray for us rather than us praying to G’d, and how the way to move forward is through teshuvah, through turning away from what has made our lives difficult. I concluded by quoting a teacher of mine, R’Benay Lappe, who pointed out that the essence of these Days of Awe is not only internal reflection but rather using that internal reflection to make our world more just, more harmonious and more filled with peace.
Tonight/today, I want to elaborate on what might be the point of these ten Days of Awe. What might be the point of culminating this period – a minyan of days, so it is clearly important – with a day where we fast, beat our chests and confess to many different sins that – if we’re honest with ourselves and our tradition – we individually didn’t commit. As a community and as a society, yes. As individuals, no. Why would we do this? What’s the point?
The Haftorah for Yom Kippur morning is from the Prophet Isaiah. He starts his prophecy by telling us that: “Thus speaks the One who lives forever on high, and whose Name is holy.” So far, so good. We expect that G’d would dwell in the heavens, if G’d actually dwells in any particular place. But then Isaiah tells us something important: that G’d also dwells “with the crushed and the humble of spirit.” In other words, G’d is not content to hang out with the angels who sing G’d’s praises each and every minute. Instead, G’d wants to hang out with those of us who have been beaten down by the world, whose spirits are crushed and who don’t know where to turn. G’d, according to Isaiah, is the one who “gives life to the spirits of those who have been humbled and to those whose hearts have been crushed.” In that one verse, the prophet uses the term “to give life” twice; clearly, G’d is compassionate, sees the broken-hearted among us, and is willing to use all of G’d’s powers to breathe life into us.
In a profound way, this prophecy that we read on Yom Kippur morning is a re-creation story. G’d knows that living in this world is hard, that – especially if we’ve been doing the hard work of teshuvah – we’re beaten down and humbled by our experience. G’d knows that – by Yom Kippur – we need new life. And so the Prophet Isaiah begins this Haftorah by telling us that, on this day, we can find new life. We are re-created. We can start afresh.
There is no more important message for Yom Kippur.
But that is only part of the message of this Holy Day. When we awake and find ourselves re-created, what are we to do? How can we change and how do we bring that change into this world? As you might expect, Isaiah has some thoughts about that, too.
Being human, we often think that we’re changing – but really we aren’t. Isaiah sees the Israelites thinking that they’re changing, that they are fasting and doing the other things that G’d wants them to do. But in reality, they haven’t changed their ways at all. They have not changed the basic social structures that oppress everyone. Isaiah tells them that they must:
Open (i.e. release) the pangs of evil
Loosen the bonds of slavery
Free the oppressed
And tear apart every bond.
Feed the hungry
House the unhoused
Clothe the naked
And not ignore those around you.
Now these words are – rightfully – famous. For what they portend is Isaiah’s promise of what the world will look like if – and it’s a big “if” – we can do these things:
Then, your light will break through like the dawn’s first light
And your renewal will sprout immediately
Your justice will walk before you
And the glory of G’d will embrace you.
Just think of this. The light of our lives can break through the bleakness and despair of these difficult times. We can begin to grow and sprout new buds and branches of righteousness. We can walk with justice – I would say Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – leading us on the way and the glory of G’d embracing us as we walk.
In a profound way, Isaiah was describing what happened when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the late revered John Lewis all walked together on the Edmund Pettis bridge in Selma so many years ago. That is the vision of the future, the vision of our future.
Our challenge on this Yom Kippur is to bring that world – a world of hope and thanksgiving, a world where we all know that we are sisters and brother, uncles and aunts, cousins; where we all know that we are a single family, united by love – into being. A world where, as Dr. King so famously said, teaching us about his dream for America at the feet of Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
And if you doubt we can do it: yes, we can!
But still the question remains. What are we to do in this new year? How can we – together – bring this new world into being.
Pirkei Avot (2:16) teaches us that we are not required to complete the work, but as free people, we are not free to ignore it.
Each of us will have a different answer to this question of what is to be done and what we can do, and that’s appropriate. Each of us has different talents and strengths, each of us is called to serve in our own unique way. That’s why we were created. As the saying goes, “G’d don’t make no junk.” Each of us has a unique and important role to play in the redemption of the world.
There are 26 hours during which we observe Yom Kippur. The number is no coincidence. It is – according to gematria, Jewish numerology – the number that is equal to YHVH, the Name of G’d. Put simply, it is a time that we give ourselves over to G’d, to transcending our lives to look at them as G’d looks at us: with compassion and with love. The number 26 is also the combination of the word echad (or “one”) and the word ahavah (or “love”). During these 26 hours, we are called to link ourselves to each other in what the great Rebbe Bob Marley called “one love.”
Over these 26 hours of Yom Kippur, I’d like to invite you to consider our lives over the past year: your life; your family’s life; our CBH community’s life; the lives of all of us who live here in Davis, Woodland or Vacaville; the life of our larger American community; and the life of our global community. As I said on Rosh Hashanah, this year has been challenging in so many ways; there are almost an infinite variety of ways in which you can help dry the tears in the world, to repair the tears in our collective souls. And if nothing is calling to you, I am sure that our wonderful Tikkun Olam committee has more than a few ideas for how you can help.
What is important on this Yom Kippur and beyond in this new year is not what I say but what you – what we collectively – do. This past year has been so difficult in so many ways. The new year gives us an opportunity to heal and to build, to clear away the rubble and to build anew.
The Talmud teaches us (TB Makkot 24b) that four rabbis were wandering at the Temple Mount after the destruction of the Second Temple and they saw a fox emerge from the ruins of the Holy of Holies, the place where only the High Priest could enter and only on Yom Kippur. Three of them wept to see the Temple destroyed but Rabbi Akiva – one of the greatest rabbis of all time – laughed and jumped with joy. The other three looked at him as if he were crazy and asked: “why are you laughing and jumping with joy?” He replied that there were two prophecies about the Temple; the first that the Temple would be totally destroyed, and the second that it would then be rebuilt. Now that the first prophecy has come true, he said, the second must also come true.
My holy friends, so it is for us. This year has seen the temples of our lives, all of the things that we used to take for granted – our ways of connecting to each other, our favorite restaurants, our vacations, our sense of a just and rational world – all of those things have been stripped away by the challenges of this past year. The pandemic has robbed us of so many different elements of our lives, including for many of us, our livelihoods and our health. The evidence of structural racism – the sheer cruelty and inhumanity that we have witnessed – has brought home to many of us that a land that we once thought was just is not. Black Lives Matter. The criminal justice system must be changed. And most recently, our physical safety and security has been called into question, first from the fires and then from the smoke and soot that polluted our air for weeks.
But it is precisely at this time when the world around us seems to be in ruins that I challenge us to follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Akiva. Together, we can envision a healthier, more peaceful and more just world. Our task for this next year is to begin the re-building. As Theodore Hertzl taught us more than a century ago: Im tirtzu, ayn zo aggadah, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Keyn yehi ratzon, may this truly be G’d’s will.