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Yom Kippur Morning Service 5782/2021

09/16/2021 09:02:32 PM


Rabbi Jeffrey Brown

Good Yuntuf.

         Among the least understood customs associated with Yom Kippur is the practice of wearing white.  In traditional circles, many wear kittels, the ritual robe that men historically wore on their wedding days, on Yom Kippur, and to conduct Passover seders.  Cantor Becker and I, and many of our colleagues around the world, wear more contemporary white robes.  And some of you choose to wear white as well.  The question is: why?

         To be sure, white symbolizes our aspirational desire to be forgiven, and for the slate to be wiped clean.  Or perhaps it is because when we wear white we are reminded that the tiniest ethical or moral stain will show up and be seen by God in the year ahead.

   But the white of our clothing also pointedly calls to mind the white tachrichin or burial shrouds that some Jews are buried in.  And it is this association that has spurred many scholars over the centuries to describe Yom Kippur as a “dress rehearsal” for our own deaths.

         The message is reinforced in our liturgy.  The words of Uneh Taneh Tokef haunt us.  Who shall live, and who shall die.   Who by fire and who by water.  They’re so unsettling because they force us to accept that some in our community will die in the year ahead.

         Montaigne, of 16th century France, wrote that “To practice death is to practice freedom.  A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”

         Maybe this is the reason Yom Kippur forces us to confront our anxiety about mortality, and the uncertainty that comes with simply not knowing how the year ahead is going to play out for us.  Doing so is almost a therapeutic device to relieve our anxiety about confronting the unknown in the year ahead.

         That uncertainty is everywhere at this moment.  Thanks to COVID, we don’t know how long the pandemic is going to last.  We aren’t sure how cautious we need to be when we go out, or even if we should go out and about.  And we’re left on edge when we struggle with questions like: will my kids be able to attend school today in person?

         The worst part is: it’s not just COVID!

         We’re uncertain about the state of our planet, and the impact of climate change.   We’re uncertain about the state of our country, given the fractured state of our politics.  And we’re even uncertain about truth and science, as rational discourse is attacked by online conspiracy theorists intent on destabilizing us.

         On this Yom Kippur morning: how might we draw on Jewish wisdom as we navigate our uncertainty about the present and future?

It’s only natural that we might feel that our faith is being tested.  If God cared about me, or us, wouldn’t God intervene and do something?  Wouldn’t God have made COVID disappear by now? 

         The perceived absence of God underscores our sense of loneliness in this extraordinarily lonely moment.

         I stand before you this morning, asking you not to permanently give up on God just yet.  Seasons of doubt are inevitable components of faith journeys.   

         The Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav famously described himself as a “moon man”, admitting that his own faith waxed and waned over time. 

         It is precisely in this moment of existential loneliness that we might give ourselves permission to open ourselves up once again to the mysterious and hidden presence of God.   

         My kids are 11 and 15, but I can still occasionally convince them to join me in a game of hide and seek.

         From our Chasidic tradition, there’s a beautiful teaching from the Rebbe of Mezhibozh.  When a student of his asked why God was seemingly absent, he responded by describing a game of hide and seek with his grandson.  He said: “I would close my eyes, count, and my grandson would go hide.  I once got distracted by the unexpected arrival of a friend, and I forgot to look for him!  A little while later, my grandson was crying from his hiding place ‘No one has come to look for me!’  Similarly, God is crying out to us, saying ‘I’m hidden, but I’m waiting for you to come find me.’”

         God is waiting for us, particularly during seasons of crisis, to reawaken our spiritual searches.  God might be hiding.  But God wants to be found.

         Judaism doesn’t just offer theological tools to cope with uncertainty.  Our tradition also suggests an experiential response.  We are encouraged to put ourselves into certain situations annually that are meant to teach us resilience in the face of uncertainty.

         Every year, four days after Yom Kippur we celebrate Sukkot.  These two holidays don’t just coincide on the calendar.  They also echo the same desire to arm us with a set of tools to navigate life’s uncertainty.

         Sukkot cautions us against becoming overly attached to our material possessions.  As Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg explains: “By moving into the sukkah for a week, Jews demythologize solid walls and controllable security. […] One should accept vulnerability and live more [relationally – with others], rather than build thick walls that are intended to protect from hurt but end up cutting us off from life.”

         Like Yom Kippur, Sukkot requires us to come face to face with uncertainty about what the future has in store for us. 

  And instead of being afraid, we lean into it.  According to our tradition, we ought to leave the comfort and safety of our homes, and spend a week eating and sleeping in a rickety booth.  Spending time in the sukkah reminds us of the preciousness of life, and that our time with others is far more important than the material items we are lucky enough to own.

         So: there are theological and experiential pathways to countering life’s uncertainty.  But our Jewish tradition is also oriented toward our taking concrete action in the world.

         Rabbi Karyn Kedar distinguishes between the notions of Fate and Destiny.  She writes that “Fate is the ordained path of our lives, the stuff that happens beyond our power to know and to control.  Destiny, however, is how we respond to fate by the choices we make.”

         We are all fated to have lived in this difficult moment.  The question is: how will we respond?

         One choice is to try to run away from the challenges of the moment.

         In this afternoon’s Haftarah reading, Jonah tries to do just that.  The whole ‘getting swallowed by the whale’ thing is a reminder of how that worked out.

         19th century German sociologist George Simmel compared the one who tries to run away to the person on the boat who walks the deck in the opposite direction the boat is sailing in, hoping to avoid reaching the ultimate destination.  It’s not a viable solution to the problem at hand.

         Emerging from the horrors of the Holocaust, Victor Frankl offers us a different approach.  He wrote: “The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is.” 

     Frankl teaches us that the best way we can respond Jewishly to this season of suffering and uncertainty is to get outside of ourselves.  Rather than dwell on the supreme discomfort and anxiety that each of us is feeling internally, we should focus instead on the pressing needs of others.

         On Yom Kippur we are reminded that there is so much we can do to help those in need.  Precisely in this moment that we are hurting, we can find purpose, hope, and healing by being kind and helping others.

         Uneh Taneh Tokef, that prayer from our Tradition that forces us to confront the uncertainty of our lives, and of the year ahead, notes that on Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

But the contemporary Jewish educator Dr. Erica Brown invites us to think of that writing process as ongoing.  She notes: “God is a writer in process.  [And] we do more than walk beneath God’s quill awaiting evaluation; we write for our own destinies, knowing that God will do the fact-checking.  [So, Brown says:] write thoughtfully and elegantly.  Select words with extreme care. […]  Embrace the difficulty [and uncertainty] of it all.  And then perhaps we can echo Yehuda Amichai’s aspiration: “I want once more to be written in the Book of Life, to be written anew every day until the writing hand hurts.”

During these unprecedented times, in which we are coming face to face with the ultimate uncertainties, may we find strength and comfort…in a rekindled search for the comforting presence of God in our lives; in the reminder that relationships are more enduring than the material possessions we are prone to pursuing; and in the service to others which can simultaneously bring new purpose and direction to our own lives as well. 

Keyn Yhi Ratzon – may this be God’s will.

Fri, April 12 2024 4 Nisan 5784