Yom Kippur Sermon

Finding Tears of Strength

Almost two years ago we gathered together at Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church to support one another in the aftermath of a terrible attack on a church in Sri Lanka.  The interfaith community had been so kind and responsive to all of us after an earlier attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the same group had gathered in support of the Muslim, Sikh and other communities in as many years. And yet as I stood with friends from every one of these communities I didn’t know what to say.

“We are numb.”  I began.  “How many times must we gather together for this senseless reason?”  How many times will we hear the news of a devastated religious community and respond by standing in solidarity and saying, “Never Again?” Every time we gather, although our troubled hearts are soothed, we began to acknowledge that our thoughts and prayers were not making enough of a difference.
We began looking at each other with weary eyes, “Will we ever see the end of our vigils?” Then came COVID, and our numbness spread.  Quarantine only exacerbated an already stressed system of empathy: endless vigils for violent acts against religious groups; the pain and progress of the MeToo Movement; gut-wrenching racial injustices that brought the Black Lives Matter movement into focus; the rise of gun violence in our cities and schools…all have taxed and overwhelmed us to the point where we feel numb.

Our Yom Kippur liturgy asks us to hear the sounds of the shofar at the end of the day as a great alarm, to wake us up to awareness of the world around us – to notice the pain and suffering around us.  This year many of us don’t need to be awakened.  We are disturbed and awake.

According to the great sage the Saadia Gaon, the shofar’s blasts are not only to awaken us from slumber.  The shofar, he writes, is also the sound of the trembling anxiety with which we face this day full of awe.  The shofar is the trembling of one who stands before God on the Day of Judgement.  We stand not before royalty perched on their throne, but rather before a much more personal God who judges our innermost hearts, who knows our deepest pride, and most private tears.  This is the God of our trembling, the one who holds us accountable for our very lives.

So what happens when we lose our ability to tremble?  Should we stand today before the Judge of Truth and say, “Sorry God, there’s just too much going on.  I just can’t today.  And really, I couldn’t yesterday, or the day before that.  I’m not up for soul searching right now.”  After more than a year of isolation, physical distance, and an overwhelming powerlessness and anxiety, we just want to stay in bed with the covers over our heads.  The temperature long ago reached a boiling point, boiled over, and now the pot is scalding.

Two years ago, after a white supremacist attempted a Yom Kippur attack on a synagogue in Germany, the editor of Alma, a millennial-focused Jewish news website wrote, “Honestly, my gut reaction was, ‘of course, of course, this happened again.  And of course it happened on Yom Kippur’.  I was like, ‘okay, here we go, this is the new normal.’  I said [to my art director], ‘what did we do last time?  Let’s do the same thing.’”[1]

This was 2019, the same year Nicholas Kristoff wrote in the New York Times, Don’t [Become] Numb to What’s Acceptable… “In New Delhi, people get used to air that is filthy;  In Syria, to checkpoints.  In Angola, to corruption.  In China, to propaganda.  And in America, we risk becoming numbed to a political, social, and moral breakdown.”[2]

Last year in May the Cleveland Clinic diagnosed the country with “quarantine fatigue”[3] likening our anxieties and stress to, “an 18 wheeler diesel truck that’s always in idle, but always underneath us.”  Our psyches are learning to live with the constant disturbance, vibration, the hum and shakiness of everyday life. We are exhausted and overwhelmed. The danger with being so inundated with concerns is that we stop caring enough about any of them.

The Jewish people are called B’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel, because our spiritual inheritance began with Israel, a.k.a. Jacob, our forefather who wrestled with both God and humanity and persevered.  The Children of Israel are those who struggle, with God’s decisions in the universe, and our very human problems here on earth.  We struggle, and we persevere.  We have suffered in every way this world knows how to inflict suffering, and we still preach connectedness, compassion and empathy.
“Remember the stranger” Torah teaches us, “because you know what it is to be a stranger.”  When we feel our history of oppression deeply enough, says the text, it will inform the way in which we care for others who are oppressed.

Immigrants, refugees – whether seeking asylum from Central America or arriving by military plane from Afghanistan, they are our responsibility.  Our neighbors in Indianapolis, Carmel, or Fishers who cannot pay their rent and risk eviction because of the pandemic, they are all our responsibility.  Those who suffer in isolation, those who are sick with COVID, or scared of COVID, or angry, they are all our neighbors, and we are supposed to feel for them all.  We cannot afford to overlook even one of them.  We teach, “Care for the Jewish poor and the non-Jewish poor in order to bring wholeness to the world,” (BT Gittin 61a); “Remember the stranger,” (Ex 23:9); “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” (Lev. 19:16)

Those mitzvot begin with our willingness and ability to relate to those we call neighbors, and those we call strangers.  The Talmud teaches, “Whoever has the ability to care for their household is responsible for their household.  If they can care for their neighbor, they are responsible for their neighbor.  If they have the ability to care for the entire world, then they are responsible for the entire world.” (BT Shabbat 54b)  This mitzvot teaches us the obligations of empathy.

Today we may find ourselves unable to keep pace with the deluge of tragedies, corruption, disease and brokenness all around us, but Yom Kippur calls us to reconnect. This is our obligation as Jews to ourselves and to one another. “Rabbi Tarfon said: The day grows short.  The work is great and the workers are lazy.  But the reward is great and the Master of the House grows impatient.” (Pirkei Avot 2:15)

Once upon a time there was a prince who had everything.  His courtiers prided themselves on seeing to his every need, fulfilling his every desire.  The prince was beloved of his people.

They ensured he had the finest clothes, most expensive wines, exquisite foods from all over the world.  But the prince grew curious about what lay beyond even the boundaries of this world.  He asked his wise advisors, “I have seen so much of the best this world has to offer, and I am grateful for it.  But now I would like to see what lies beyond this world, I would like to see God.”

His advisors were never ones to shy away from a challenge, but this one had them perplexed. They hired rugged mountain climbers to take the prince up to the top of the highest mountain.  The view was breathtaking, but he did not see God.  The trustiest sailors took him far out into the ocean, where he saw the most beautiful waters, and giant whales playing in the foam, but he did not see God.  His advisors brought him the most revered bishops, lamas, caliphs, and rabbis.  Each took him into their most magnificent houses of worship – to the nave, the dome, the ark, and the altar.  He was inspired but he didn’t see God.

They were truly stuck, until a wise woman appeared with a simple suggestion.  The prince didn’t need to travel far, she said, he could even find God in his very own village.  She took him to a small house near the palace.  Inside the house was a girl, alone.  She had lost her parents in a terrible accident, and she herself was injured and afraid.  She cried as she told the prince her story.

As tears ran down the prince’s own cheeks, the woman held out a small mirror for him to see his own face.  “What do you see?” – she asked.  “I see myself crying,” he answered. She replied, “Now you have seen the face of God.”

She said, “God is in the space between us; you couldn’t see God in your palace because you were surrounded only by those who served you and your needs.  God needs us to take care of each other, and so God only appears when we notice those around us – when we commit ourselves to their needs, when we feel their pain as our own.

On this Yom Kippur our task of teshuvah cannot be completed until we reach inwards to consider our own actions, reach upwards towards God, and also reach outward towards one another.  The prayers must inspire us to connect to the needs of others, and to the problems facing our communities.

In the words of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, “The Justice rendered to the Other, my neighbor, gives me an unsurpassable proximity to God.”[4]  We see God in the eyes of other people.  Today the opportunity is there, to see God in the faces of those we pray with now, those we are closest to in life.  And they need us today, as we need them.

Our Machzor is filled with passages expressing our deep desire to know God – to feel God’s presence on this holy day.  How can we expect God to be present, if we are unable to be present ourselves?

On Yom Kippur, we confront difficult and challenging passages in the Machzor, because they bring us face to face with difficult and challenging truths about ourselves.  We have failed in so many ways to move forward – in our own personal relationships and in much larger ways.  We don’t need the shofar to raise our awareness of the cries of others, as much as we need that guttural, unrefined, coarse sound to shake loose our tears, to weep for all the pain we feel, the disappointment in ourselves and others, and the terrible injustice we see and hear of every day.

One of the most powerful stories of the High Holy Days is that of Ishmael, Isaac’s half-brother.  We are more familiar with Abraham’s harsh treatment of Isaac.  But in the very next chapter, Abraham, at Sarah’s request, throws out his other son Ishmael and his mother Hagar, condemning them to death.  Alone in the desert, Hagar prays to God to save her and her son.  And the Torah specifies, “God heard the cries of the boy.”

Strange that it is Hagar who speaks words in prayer, while presumably Ishmael is too weak even to talk.  And yet God hears the cry of Ishmael, not his mother.  The commentaries argue that Ishmael is praying, in the purest form.  Rashi says, “We learn from this that our personal prayer from the place of our own vulnerability, is more effective than any words of sympathy we might have for others.”[5]  God hears Ishmael’s emotion, the cry of his heart, even when his lips are not able to form the words.  Prayer is called Avodah she’ba-lev – the work of the heart, and not the mouth.

The Psalmist writes, “Hear me O God, for I am distraught and I will moan.  My heart writhes within me, the terrors of death fall upon me.  Fear and trembling come to me, I am overwhelmed with emotion.” (Ps 55:2-6)  Levinas imagines a moment after the Akedah, when Abraham awakens from the episode as if from a trance.  In consecutive chapters he has destroyed his relationships with both of his sons.
And in this imagined moment, we want Abraham to physically tremble, and to be overcome by, “no, not fear, but instead by awe.”   Can we view this emotional state as the aim for our Teshuvah?  The goal for our day of atonement?

Our machzor borrows similar language from the Talmud (Ber. 32b) “Even when the gates of prayer are locked, the gates of tears are never locked, as it is written in psalms, ‘hear my prayer O God, listen to my pleas, do not stay silent before my tears.’” (Ps 39:13)

In Torah, crying is associated with people at a turning point in life – Jacob cries when he thinks he has lost his son, Joseph cries in the Pharaoh’s prison.  Warriors and kings cry, the psalmist and the prophets cry.  Tears are our turning point toward liberation and redemption – that is why we have bowls of tears on our tables for every Passover Seder.  It was only after the Israelites cried out in Egypt that God answered, “I have heard their cries and I know their sorrows…” (Ex 3:7)  We pray that today God might know our sorrows, and hear our cries, when we offer them.

Charles Dickens wrote in the voice of Pip, the narrator of Great Expectations, “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better off after I had cried, than before – more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.”[6]  Rain opening the dry dust of the earth, overlying our hard hearts.  It is not always feelings that give way to tears, write Dickens; often it is the other way around – tears alert us to our feelings, soften us.  Tears make us more sorry, more gentle, more able to access our honest emotions.

It is incredibly difficult to gather in a large congregation, even during the holiest day of the year, and have a personal experience of teshuvah.  That deep introspective work is better suited for the sacred places you have set up for yourself, for these days, in your home.  Fasting on Yom Kippur helps us to feel the intention as a physical longing.  Familiar melodies signal the importance of the work that lies before us on this day.  And the words draw us in, “All my vows and promises that I make this year, which I find myself incapable of fulfilling, through my weakness, or circumstance, may I be forgiven for them, may they not be counted against me in the heavenly court.”  What will it take for each of us to feel that vulnerable as we enter the Day of Atonement?

There is a powerful midrash that imagines the moment when Abraham binds his son Isaac to the altar.  Like Levinas, we want to know where his emotions lie.  How can Abraham bind his beautiful son and feel nothing?  In the midrash, “Abraham’s eyes looked into Isaac’s, and Isaac’s eyes turned instead towards the heavens.  And tears did fall from Abraham’s eyes, and fell and fell until he thought he would drown in them.  He sobbed and sobbed until the angels on high cried with him, and then they intervened.

The angels said to God – “who will praise you generations from now, at the Sea if you do this thing?  Who will inherit the land that you promised to Abraham?”  And immediately a voice was heard, “Do not raise your hand against the boy…”[7]  The rabbis cannot imagine the story of the Akedah, the story of our High Holy Days, without tears.  God is moved by our cries more than our words.  The Kavanna, the intention we bring to this day, outweighs the Keva, the written word.

We pray today that the many challenges facing our families, our city and our nation will be resolved through compassion and cooperation.  But our task today is the vital first step to that end – we have to give ourselves the chance to feel, to reconnect with the emotion of our experience and that of others, to connect with our tears.  Today we take personal responsibility for all our growth; and approach each other with honesty and humility about our many failures, for they are ours as well.

At the end of this powerful day of repentance and prayer we will begin our Neilah service with these words, “Now, in the silence of the soul, before the day comes to an end – release the unshed tears, the deepest prayers locked in our hearts.” (p. 612)  This isn’t a prayer for God.  It’s a prayer, a hope, an intention we must set for ourselves.  May the shofar’s call become the sound of our trembling.  The broken sobbing of the nine notes of Teruah become restored and made whole again with a final Tekiah Gedolah: one mighty, cathartic cry.  And then when the shofar’s cry resounds in our ears, and shakes our sternum – when we become dizzy from the sound, that cry will spill over as our own cry, and we will truly be awake.

We need this day.  We need these words to remind us of who we are.  On this day, we stand before our God, our souls laid bare before us, and we take an accounting.  Tradition teaches us that on Yom Kippur God is closer to us, and more attentive.  And we know that God hears us, listens to our cries – the Gates of Teshuvah are open.

[1] https://www.heyalma.com/numbness-is-the-new-norm-jewish-journalists-on-covering-anti-semitic-attacks/
[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/06/opinion/trump-corruption.html
[3] https://health.clevelandclinic.org/are-you-experiencing-coronavirus-quarantine-fatigue/
[4] Levinas, Emmanuel. Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism. Translated by Seán Hand. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1990. p. 19
[5] Rashi on Gen. 21:17
[6] Charles Dickens, Great Expectations. Chapter 19, end of part 1
[7] Yalchut Shimoni