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A Hitchhiker's Guide to Yom Kippur
Kol Nidre 5770 (2009)

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro, Sinai Temple

 

Sadie Cohen has a problem.  She takes things.  She has been “taking things” for many years.  One day she comes home and tells her husband, Saul, she has something to confess. “I was at the grocery store.  I took something without paying.  I’m sorry.”

Saul can barely say anything before the police arrest Sadie.  She is taken before the judge who has seen her under similar circumstances before.  The judge says, “Mrs. Cohen, I’m sorry.  I have no choice.  This isn’t your first time stealing.  I  have to send you to jail.  I know you stole a can of peaches.  Tell me how many peach slices were in the can?”

“Seven, your honor.”

“Then you’re going to have to spend seven nights in jail.”

At which point, Saul Cohen raises his hand and says, “Your honor, she also took a can of peas!”

I like that story, and I am pleased to announce that you can hear this story and many more like it by visiting a website with the incredible name:  “oldjewstellingjokes.”

I’m not making this up.  There really is a website called “oldjewstellingjokes.”  They present a new joke told in video format every Tuesday and Thursday. 

How could this be?  For years, there have been websites about Jewish practice or Jewish history.  You can probably find 50 websites on the Torah portion of the week.  But a website for Jewish jokes?  How could this be?  Or you might say - How could it not be? 

After all, don’t Jews and Jewish identity come in all shapes and sizes?  One Jew’s defining passion might be Torah Study.  Another’s Jewish passion might be Jewish fiction.  Some Jews see Judaism as a call to social justice.  Others love Israel above all else.  Others speak Hebrew as their way of being Jewish.  Some love Jewish food.  And others tell Jewish jokes or laugh at them.  Hence, the website dedicated to Jewish humor.

It’s important to note all these expressions of Jewish identity because, on a night when so many of us come together to form a Jewish community, I’m quite sure we aren’t all on the same page when it comes to our Judaism.

Some of us, for example, are more comfortable than others with prayer.  You might say, praying and believing is what they do as Jews.  They’re here tonight for Kol Nidre, and they are ready for teshuvah, viddui, and the other classic expressions of the day.

But not everyone is on that page of Jewish expression.  I have to imagine that a lot of us (probably a large number of us) are actually sitting here somewhat uncomfortably.  Maybe it’s the folding chairs and the press of the crowd that put us on edge.  Or maybe it’s more than that.  The very religious focus of Yom Kippur may raise some serious questions for many people sitting here. 

This isn’t like Simchat Torah where there is singing and dancing with the Torah scrolls plus lots of time to chat and laugh.  This won’t be like a Chanukah service either where those flickering candles are so pretty you can’t help but be moved.

Next to the color and activity elsewhere in the Jewish year, Yom Kippur is almost spartan.  It is unadorned.  It’s you, God, and the prayer book, and, for many people, that is awkward.  Many people are too polite to say it out loud, but Yom Kippur with all its demands on faith is really not so easy.

If you wonder about God’s existence or if you wonder what a service is supposed to accomplish, you may wonder if you aren’t a slight impostor sitting here among the faithful.

That’s not to say you didn’t resonate with the description of the Temple’s I offered back on Rosh Hashanah.  I think you (all of us) are proud to be Jewish in many different ways.  You’ve got a sense that our Temple is about belonging, roots, and values.  But when it comes to believing, you’re not so sure you believe what all the other Jews believe.  When it comes to praying, you’re not sure you’re on the same page. 

But here’s the central truth about tonight and tomorrow.  Questions, doubts, uncertainties or not, you are here!  And if you brought yourself here, then I believe somehow someway you felt you belonged here.  And you do.  In fact, in these next few minutes I would like to assure you that every Jew of every kind does belong here tonight.  It’s just not so easy to figure out what we’re supposed to do once we’re here.

That’s why I want to begin our service by offering some thoughts on God and prayer.  You might call this sermon – “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Yom Kippur.”

First things first – What got you here tonight?  NO, you can’t blame it on your wife or your husband.  NO, you’re not allowed to say you’re here because of your kids or because you feel guilty thinking of your parents and their expectations. 

The truth is that grownups rarely do what they don’t want to do, and that means there is something about these Days of Awe that draws Jews into the synagogue whether they be secular, cynical, or separate from Jewish life the rest of the year.

At first glance, our holiday vocabulary doesn’t sound too appealing.  Sin, repentance, confession.  On Rosh Hashanah and during Yom Kippur, we ask to be written into a Book of Life.  We sing Avinu Malkeinu and ask that our prayers be heard.  We hear the U’netane Tokef prayer where we say out loud:  “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed:  Who shall live and who shall die.”  To top it all off, while we are reciting these words, we don’t even get to eat!

This is no fun, but here we are - you and I - with page after page to go in the holiday prayer book.  This can only make sense if something important to us as human beings happens during the High Holidays.  Sin and repentance may be the words printed on the pages of our books, but, I believe, it’s what lies beneath the words that makes us want to be here.  For sin and repentance are terms you think about when you’re thinking about the quality of your life. 

When you look inside yourself and ask what am I doing, what have I done, what have I not done, where have I failed, where am I going, then you are doing the work of the High Holidays.  That’s deep work.  That’s hard work. 

That’s the kind of questioning every one of us occasionally considers.  It’s the opportunity to do this work in an organized way that really draws us here tonight. 

The great High Holidays themes are the great human questions about life and its purpose.

I said before that I wanted to offer you a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to Yom Kippur.”  Let me make good on that proposal right now by asking you to consider that all of us all year round are on a journey.  You might say we hike our way through life.  Day by day we make our way along the path of life.  Some days the trail is easy; some days the trail requires all the strength we have. 

I imagine the High Holidays as that time when the year long trail leads us to the top of a mountain.  During this season, we clear the treetops and get ourselves high enough up to see where we are.  Up here, we’ve got perspective.  At the peak, at this moment when one year passes into another, we can finally see back where we’ve been for the year.  We remember the joy.  We recall what really hurt.  We can even see who joined us along the path and who didn’t survive the journey. 

Beyond that, up here at the summit who wouldn’t use the vantage point to see into the future?  A year has gone; another year looms ahead.  Wouldn’t we all like to see what the trail holds for us in the next twelve months?

All this is what gives the High Holidays such power. It’s not the words we say or sing as much as the sense we have that time is passing.  5769…5770…A year goes by.  A year flies by.  No wonder, we want to be here.  This is home base.

This is the place where we hold each other tight as we contemplate time, life, death, meaning, and purpose.  This is the place where we replenish ourselves for the journey that awaits us outside.

But does God have anything to do with this

For some Jews, God is central.  These Days of Awe offer the classic imagery of a God who judges us at this pivotal, annual moment. 

But that brings us back to the question I raised earlier:  What if the image of a majestic God troubles you more than it edifies you? 

I’ve got good news.  As your guide for the evening, I would like to offer you another way to climb the High Holiday mountain. 

Here’s my secret.  For many years, I suspected I might be the only rabbi who was uncomfortable with the all-powerful, all-knowing God in our prayer book.  But this winter I learned something quite unexpected.  I was invited to a rabbinic conference on the High Holiday prayer book.  (It turns out that our Reform movement is actively planning to revise Gates of Repentance.) 

What counts for right now, however, is what I heard around the table at the meeting.  Lots of rabbis struggle with the imagery of God in the prayer book. 

A rabbi from San Francisco shared his concerns in writing.  “I am troubled,” he wrote, “by the language of divine sovereignty.  What does not work for me is the emphasis on God’s absolute power and our own frailty…There is an imbalance here that doesn’t square with how we experience ourselves in the world, and with Reform Jewish teachings about human responsibility.  Many Reform teachers have called for a re-balancing that honors the role of human beings more fully.  I am looking for God language that recognizes both human strengths and human weaknesses.”  (Adapted from Rabbi Yoel Kahn, CCAR Journal, Spring 2009)

Those are weighty words, but I suspect they also express what some of you feel in our prayer book.  You are drawn to the mountaintop for that opportunity to reflect on time and life’s goals.  However, you don’t resonate with the image of a towering, omnipotent God on top of the mountain.  It’s not that you don’t believe in God; you just don’t believe in that God. 

If that’s what you feel, I am with you.

I’m not an atheist.  I don’t want to go up on the mountain only carrying a good novel.  I do believe there is something more than you and me at work in our lives.  But it’s not a puppeteer up in the sky.  It’s not a grandfatherly king on a throne.

When I think of God, I think instead of a presence, a force, a spirit that quietly, supports us along the path of life.  Several years ago Rabbi Arthur Waskow suggested a wonderful way to express my belief.  First, he recited the historic blessing:  Baruch atta Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam….Literally, that means “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, MELECH/KING of the universe.”

Then Waskow substituted one word that made a beautiful difference.  He changed the two syllable word MELECH, meaning King, for another two syllable word RUACH, meaning spirit. 

Without losing a beat, the transformed blessing now read:  Baruch atta Adonai Eloheinu ruach ha-olam…“Blessed are You, Adonai our God, RUACH/SPIRIT of the universe.”

Most of the time, that blelssing reads perfectly for me. 

I don’t think of God as being up there in heaven because that picture taken by the astronauts from the moon looking back at earth indicates that there is no “up there” anymore.  We and our planet are surrounded in all directions by space and reality.  If anything, for me, God is not above.  God is beneath me, supporting me, encouraging me.  God is like a bubbling stream that pushes to the surface and holds me up.

Of course, I may be wrong.  My metaphor for God may be different from what God really is, but for now, this is how I imagine God.

When I get to the High Holiday prayer book, I hold onto this vision.  In fact, I make it work by reminding myself that the Jews who created our prayer book also couldn’t know for sure that their metaphors were correct.  What I do, then, is to read their words as if they were poetry. 

When the prayer book says “Dear God, forgive me” those words become my way to acknowledge that my priorities do not always make me proud.  “Forgive me” means I am not the person I should fully be.

When the prayer book says, “Dear God, write me in the Book of Life” those words become my way to express the hope that somewhere there is a book or a principle by which the world holds together.

So it goes.  The words aren’t read literally.  They are a starting point.

That’s even true for an old friend of mine whom I spoke to four days before Rosh Hashanah.  His young adult child died in an accident this past spring.  In the course of our conversation I asked him what he expected at services this year. After all, it’s so clear that God didn’t scoop down to save his child or fix the survivors after the loss.  And, by the way, my friend is a rabbi.

Maybe that’s why he said the following, “True, God didn’t save me this year.  But, then, I never thought God would do that.  I actually believe the words in our old prayer book, The Gates of Prayer.  That’s where it says…Prayer invites God to let God’s presence suffuse our spirits…Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city.  But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.”

That describes my friend and me too. 

I think those words express beautifully what happens when we pray.  It’s not magic.  No hocus pocus.

It’s not like a gumball machine where you deposit your coin and automatically get your candy.  In fact, on Yom Kippur of all days there is no candy or sweets at all.

Or let me rephrase that, for there is something sweet about this day.

There is the community that gathers together and fills this room with its many voices.  That’s sweet.

There is the community composed of so many Jews with so many ways to express themselves as Jews.  There is this community that embraces those we love who are not Jewish and still join us on this journey of life.

That is also very sweet.

And there is this opportunity we have at this season to climb up high, stop, think big thoughts, wonder about our purpose and our destination, and maybe (with God’s blessing) even manage to touch the stars.

Being here together for this sacred purpose – That is most definitely sweet.

I’m going to close with a poem by the contemporary writer, Danny Siegel.  It appears in one of the prayer pamphlets we published many years ago.  But it also works now because this is a night for metaphor, for praying, and maybe encountering something divine to sustain us on our journey into the New Year. 

The Lord’s love is wide
as the greatest teacher's

Sometimes

encompassing the feed for cattle
even unto chicken eggs and gophers for snakes.
High as Rocky mountain peaks
reflected in the mirror of the lake
so high is God’s graciousness

Sometimes

giving Life
letting grand old men die
in the comfort of their homes
filling the time-flies interim
with scenes of many colored joy.
God’s light shines everywhere                                         

Almost

as through stained glass  windows
fracturing the rays in dancing shades.
God’s light is a guide
it is a warm
always changing happening of silence music              

Almost always

and this sometimes
            almost always
is enough.
For in this light
            is hope and comfort
            and a hidden answer.

 

 

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