Here are all the words I said on Yom Kippur day at Beth El in Bethesda, MD. 1) Introduce Torah Reading. 2) Main Sermon. 3) Intro to the Silent Amidah. 4) Intro to U'netana Tokef. 5) Intro to Aleinu. 6) Intro to the Avodah Service.
1) Introduce Torah Reading:
One of these things is not like the other: A day, a week, a month, and a year. Who knows the answer? (Wait for answer).
A day is a full rotation of the Earth, a month is a full lunar cycle, and a year is a full trip around the Sun. A week is totally arbitrary, unhinged from astronomical phenomena. And yet, the six days of work and the sacred seventh day of Shabbat form the core rhythm of our lives. On Friday night we say:
ויברך אלוהים את יום השביעי ויקדש אתו
And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. We are obsessive about creating moments in time and sanctifying those moments in time: The Shabbat candles must be lit Friday evening, Havdalah begins only when you can see three stars, Passover is always on the fourteenth of Nisan, Yom Kippur is always on the tenth of Tishrei, and telemarketers and Bubby will always call during dinner. We are obsessed with time. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time.”
We are about to read today’s Torah portion, Leviticus chapter 16. It is a detailed manual for how to celebrate Yom Kippur. We usually get caught up in the objects of the reading and consider them to be inherently holy: The sacrificial animals, the incense, the clothing, the altar. But these items only moved our ancestors toward a moment in time that is holy. These items are just items, and Leviticus knows that.
The rules before verse 29 involve holy objects and are not meant for us to do. It is only in verse 29 where we are first told, “And this is a law for you for all time.” And the commandments that follow have no ritual objects, they are actions like fasting, not working, resting, and atoning. These eternal commandments starting in verse 29 are designed to create a holy moment, which we must do for all time, on the tenth of Tishrei, today.
Today, we will not be using the same objects our ancestors used, but we will be pursuing a holy moment in time just like they did. We will not be burning any rams, nobody here is holding two handfuls of finely ground incense, and nobody should be girding their loins with a linen sash. We will be wearing nice clothing, blowing a shofar, and reading from a scroll about how our ancestors also pursued holy moments in time on the tenth of Tishrei, just like we are doing today. Please enjoy the moment.
2) Main Sermon:
A meaning of life is the pursuit of holiness, because holiness is found in the moments in time that make life meaningful. We must always strive to arrive at the moment when, like the angels in Isaiah’s vision, we can praise as witnesses to the divine, kadosh kadosh kadosh.
All of life is a pilgrimage to holy moments in time, a journey toward the destiny demanded of us at Sinai, to be a holy nation. We have the right to pursue happiness,, and we have the obligation to pursue holiness.
It is impossible to talk about holiness without sounding (somewhat foolish) like a fool, because how can one express an experience of our mysterious God, how can one define our undefinable God, and how dare one even try to use our words to capture our free God? This is why Maimonides says that you can only talk about God in terms of what God is not, because we have no words for what God is. But it’s Yom Kippur and Maimonides is not here, so I ask, where is holiness? Where do we feel something special?
So often in life, we can feel a holy moment in a special place with special things, and when we try to recreate the moment by going back to that place and doing what we had done earlier, it does not work, it is not the same experience. I went to the Devil’s Ground group campsite in Arches National Park in Utah two summers in a row. Each time, before the sun set, I walked out to the edge of the ledge that looks like pride rock from the Lion King. The second time did not feel as special as the first, even though it was the same holy site.
It is difficult to say what or where holiness is, as if you can hold it or find it on google maps. Holiness exists less in things and objects, and more in moments in time. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is a moment that lends significance to things.”
Today’s Torah reading was about the objects and things that our ancestors used in the desert to make Yom Kippur a holy day. But holiness did not happen because our ancestors pushed a goat off a cliff and wore constricting single fabric linen underwear. Holiness happened in moments in time, in moments of atonement and relationship with the divine.
Holiness exists in time. It could be when you see a rainbow and your jaw drops and pushes out an unformed prayer, or when you hear the shofar later today; or when you see an act of kindness and your heart grows large for a moment, or that moment when you and a loved one crack the code and figure out how to build a dresser from Ikea. Holy moments come in all types of time.
So, when is holiness? As Rabbi Harold Schulweiss said, “Not where is love, not where is God. But when is love, when is God.” Holiness seems to emerge in moments when time seems to freeze, in moments in time that transcend time, moments that allude to the Eternal.
Martin Buber taught that holiness can be found in moments of relationship when two independent entities encounter each other as I and Thou, when they relate to each other on a level of mutuality and interdependence. When they see each other as cut from the same cloth and part of the same fabric, as parts of the same whole. As neighbors on the same planet. When the illusion of our fractured world alludes to the interconnected truth of our reality. A moment of equality, of love, when neither partner is objectified, and both are subjects to each other. When we see each other in our full divine glory, as b’tzelem Elohim. When we are drawn by the gravity of our fellow’s soul, and we feel the strong covenantal obligation to our fellow holy being. The 20th century French Jewish philosopher Emannuel Levinas said, “When you see the face of the other, you are ordered and ordained to service.” Or, in the words of the Musar Rebbe Yisrael Salanter, ‘My neighbor’s material needs are my spiritual needs.’ When we see our neighbor, we feel an obligation to them, and relating in this way is a spiritual pursuit. Holiness seems more likely in this type of encounter, and lately, this type of encounter in our public space has been too rare.
Pursuing a holy encounter seems to me to be a foundation of democracy. Democracy is an active verb, and it is the act of we the people relating to each other as subjects on the level of interdependence and mutual obligation to love your neighbor. It is talking with each other like we are human beings. It is when we can communicate with each other on the level of one person, one vote. Democracy is the act of waking up to our oneness. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist who Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, once said, “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” Democracy is the pursuit of wholeness.
Democracy is not simply a form of government or a method of solving problems, it is a way of life and an identity. The pursuit of wholeness is not about pushing for a begrudging political deal or about passing a law, it is about healing the brokenness of our world, when our public spaces trend toward absurdity and chaos. It is not about attack ads and shouting over each other and fighting with each other, it is about unifying the verses we sing into one, into a universe. E Pluribus Unum, from many come one.
When we can better relate to each other on a level of democracy, on a level of obligation that pursues wholeness and holiness, it is as close to any dogma that I hold that we will enter into more peaceful and holy times, that we will draw closer to a time that may be called messianic redemption. The American pragmatist John Dewey uttered these words of faith, “When the mystic force… of communication, of the miracle of shared life and shared experience is spontaneously felt, the hardness and crudeness of contemporary life will be bathed in the light that never was on land or sea.”
But if we are not acting in democracy, if we are not opening up lines of communication and relating to each other, then we are moving toward divisiveness, fragmentation, and absurdity. To paraphrase Heschel, ‘If we do not climb toward holiness, then we are destined to drown in absurdity.’ Absurdity is when we objectify each other and cannot see each other as people living together in our home. It is when we overwhelmingly agree on so many things ranging from the need for gun control to the need to fight climate change, yet we cannot love each other to the point where we can do something. We seem absurdly incapable of acting from a place of mutual obligation. We do not relate well to each other in public spaces and in our public discourse. Our collective decision making is failing, and we are struggling mightily to perform even basic democracy.
There are many stumbling blocks that we build that trip us up when we try to relate to each other to solve our problems. And there are many road blocks that we build that keep us from our public spaces and our Capitol buildings, that sabotage the practice of democracy and plunge us away from holiness and into the tragic quicksands of absurdity.
Superpacs, super delegates, unlimited gifts, campaign contributions, the revolving door, gerrymandering, not having automatic voter registration. These are just some of the road blocks that prevent us from relating to each other as equal citizens and pursuing holiness. The lines of communication and relationship are down, the roads to the Temple in the capital are jammed and Isaiah cries out in today’s Haftorah, ‘Clear the road, build a road!’
This past spring, I participated in a pro-democracy movement named Democracy Spring. On the morning of Saturday, April 2nd, several hundred of us gathered at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to walk 140 miles, ten days on the roads from the Liberty Bell to the Capitol building in Washington DC. From Monday, April 11th through Monday, April 18th, hundreds and thousands protested at the Capitol building every day. Over 1,300 of us were arrested that week blocking the Capitol Steps in the largest act of nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol in modern memory. The theme of our legislative demands was, simply put, ‘money out, voters in.’ We demanded an end to our era of absurdity, and a commitment to opening up the channels of our democracy so we can talk with each other as a nation, and craft our politics and policies in the pursuit of the holy.
Democracy Spring was a pilgrimage of loving obligation. A common chant along the way was, “Show me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like.” As we walked, we talked, we listened, we shared our gratitude, our suffering, our stories, and our hopes and dreams. We slept on church floors and shared the same mediocre camp food. We related to each other as equals, and the pilgrimage seemed holy.
The goal of a nonviolent protest is to force fellow citizens and the government to see the humanity of the protestors. We insistently placed ourselves into the way of Congress and demanded that they see our face, relate to us as equal citizens, and ask themselves the question, ‘Are these people not worthy of an uncorrupted democracy?’ In these moments of nonviolence, of persistent loving confrontation, holy moments can emerge.
On our first day in DC, Monday April 11th, about 400 of us were arrested for blocking the Capitol Steps. There was a moment near the end of the day, when most had already been arrested and the police were casually going about handcuffing and processing ten people at a time. I was standing a few steps up talking with a hero of mine about nonviolence in the West Bank. And then I noticed that a tall protestor dressed like the Statue of Liberty was about to be arrested in front of the US Capitol building. Lady Liberty was being handcuffed for demanding a democracy. I stood with rapt attention. Her face was serene and confident, and the police looked a bit uncomfortable. I blurted out for every camera to come see this, but most were already drawn in by the gravity of the moment. It was a moment that highlighted the absurdity of the situation, and yet it was a beautiful moment of relationship. It was an arresting moment. The opening line of Vice News’ coverage that day was, “Lady Liberty was arrested on Monday afternoon.” I talked with her a bit in jail. She is an environmental engineering Phd student from Wisconsin who is concerned about climate change, and has too many times butted her head up against the glass ceiling of corruption that keeps us from a safe future on our pale blue dot.
Democracy Spring and many other anti-corruption groups are currently forcing loving confrontations around the country, and will continue to do so until we live democracy. And this spring, we are going to march from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, the March on Harrisburg. But that’s the spring pilgrimage, and today is Yom Kippur.
Today we read the Book of Jonah. It is the story of the people of Nineveh who are told to repent or face tragedy. From the king to the peasants, everyone in Nineveh places themselves on an equal level, putting on the same clothing and sitting in the same ashes. It is the story of the people of Nineveh who practice democracy by giving up their evil ways and their violence, repenting, fasting, praying, and relating to each other as interwoven equals beneath a sovereign God. The people of Nineveh organized a massive and successful campaign of nonviolence, and soulfully insisted that God love them. This is one of the very few inspiring moments in the Bible when God becomes angry at a group of people not led by Moses, and then nobody dies.
Democracy and nonviolence insist that we recognize each other in the image of God, it insists that we love each other as ourselves, and it is confident that we will achieve peace, not by might, not by power, but by spirit alone.
The people of Nineveh realized the urgent need to humbly force a nonviolent encounter between each other, and between them and God. Right now, we are not yet written into the book of life or the book of death, and we are in the middle of a hunger strike. Today, we strive through active democracy and nonviolent direct action to encounter God, to confront God. We have the obligation to assemble, to speak, to petition, to pray, to relate. Our right to pursue happiness is secondary to our obligation to pursue holiness.
Today we stand before God in humble and insistent nonviolence, pursuing a moment of compassionate relationship. Today we face the Source, we force a loving confrontation with El Malei Rachamim, and we pray for repentance and mercy.
If we are humble, insistent, and persistent, teshuvah is inevitable. About 15 centuries ago, it was written in the Pesikta de Rav Kahana, “Israel said to God, ‘Master of the Universe, if we repent, will you accept it?’ God responded, ‘Would I accept the repentance of the people of Nineveh and not yours?’”
3) Intro to Musaf: (Remember to mime letters backward).
We are about to begin musaf, but first, as we begin the year, I want to look back to the beginning of the Torah. The Torah begins with a bet. B’reishit bara Elohim… The letter bet is a firm starting point from which to go forward. A bet cannot look backward, because there is a vertical line (left arm) blocking its vision of what came before. One cannot go up or down from within a bet, because there are two horizontal lines. All one can do within a bet is explode forward. So it makes sense that the Torah would begin with a bet.
But I disagree that the Torah begins with a bet! That little tail on the backside of a bet points to the letter that really begins the Torah, the aleph.
An aleph is a combination of three letters. On the top is a yud, and on the bottom is a yud. When two yuds come together, a name for God is formed, and the two yuds in the aleph are held together with a vav, an ‘and.’ An aleph is a vav that is pulling together the upper and the lower parts of God’s name. The vav is pulling together the upper and the lower worlds, the holy and the mundane, the sacred and the profane, the immanent and the transcendent. The aleph is a moment of monotheism, an encounter of interconnectedness. The aleph represents a holy moment in time. And I argue that the Torah cannot begin with a bet, because an aleph must have inspired that bet.
Before we can launch ourselves forward into the Torah, into the new year, into life, we need the aleph, the holy moments that inspire and nourish. It could be the moment when you felt the warm summer grass between your toes, looked up at the sunset, felt warm, and for a moment, life made sense. It could be the moment when you first saw your child as a growing human being, or a friend wrote you a nice note, or you visited a friend in the hospital, or when that happy puppy set your schedule back ten minutes.
I’m convinced that we all have moments that are holy, and while we should talk about them, we often don’t, because, how can you? Our language falls short every time. This is why the aleph is a silent letter. We are about to begin musaf with the silent Amidah. Please take some time to think about the special moments in life that nourish you, the aleph moments that will propel you forward through bet and into the year.
4) U’netanah To’kef:
In Unetanah Tokef, we are going to confront the very real doubt that we have no idea what is about to happen. At the end of the prayer, we are given a choice to act with righteousness, and if we do, good things will probably happen. Our choice to do good matters immensely.
This past summer, I lived and worked in southern Italy, and I came across a concentration camp named Ferramonti. Ferramonti is snuggled into the cozy hills of southern Italy, near the bottom of the big toe, in the golden fields between the highway and the river.
Ferramonti was a concentration camp during the holocaust unlike any other. While six million were murdered elsewhere, in Ferramonti there were no deportations and there was no violence. The guards were nice and respectful, and the camp director was lenient and kind.
Ferramonti was the first camp to be liberated and the last camp to close. As the nazi army retreated through Italy in the fall of 1943, the camp director sent the Jews out of the camp and into the hills to hide with the locals. The local Italians, living in a tough wartime economy, decided to ‘cut their bits of bread in half,’ and they chose to feed and protect the Jews as the German army passed through with the Jewish brigade of the British army on their heels. Once liberated, the prisoners voluntarily returned to the camp, because it was safe and nice, and the camp was only closed at the end of 1945, several months after the war was over.
Ferramonti held over 3,000 prisoners, and only 40 people died there, 39 of them from natural causes. The 40th was killed by the British army when they briefly and accidentally mistook the camp for a military base because of its spacious and clean barracks. In Ferramonti, there was good food and proper shelter, and the medical care was so good that the locals would come to the camp when they were sick.
I’ve cried in Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdonik, and Theresienstadt, but when visiting Ferramonti, I couldn’t help but smile and laugh. In the museum, there are pictures of the women’s volleyball teams and the men’s soccer teams, children hugging and joyously dressed for Purim outside of one of the three synagogues. There are pictures of the Talmud club studying, academics reading in their makeshift studies, and report cards from the several schools in the camp. There are pictures of wedding ceremonies and concerts. There are pictures of the barbershop and the ice cream store. And most interestingly, there are pictures! The prisoners had cameras and developed their own photographs. Ferramonti resembles an underfunded summer camp more than a holocaust concentration camp.
The economy in Ferramonti was strong, considering there was a war going on. Prisoners who had been professionals before the war freely continued their trades. Artists created, teachers taught, doctors healed, and people enjoyed life.
What is the meaning of Ferramonti? I think it is a profound lesson in nonviolent civil disobedience and claiming one’s choice for good in perhaps the harshest chapter in modern history. No matter what orders came from the fascists in the north, no matter which army was coming through, the locals in charge of Ferramonti chose to refuse to participate in a system of suffering and violence. Their refusal put their own lives at risk, and it saved many lives and many worlds. People chose joy and love over suffering and hate, they chose good over evil at Ferramonti.
Unetana Tokef tells us that we do not know what will happen in this next year, but if we choose good, it will be better.
We are about to move into the Aleinu, which means it is on us to worship the Master of All. Nonviolence is a form of worship.
This past summer, I went to Bethlehem to visit a friend named Haya. Haya is a Palestinian Muslim from Hebron, which is a very tense and violent city in the West Bank. I first met Haya two years ago through a program called Encounter that brings Jews and Palestinians together to see each other as human beings. Haya first attended an Encounter five years ago when she was about 20, and she kept quietly coming back and persistently dragging more and more family and friends along with her each time. She kept coming back because before she met a Jew not in a uniform, she thought that Jewish people do not have tears and cannot feel emotions.
In mid-August, I took off my yarmulke and hopped on the Arab bus by the Old City in Jerusalem, breezed through the checkpoint, and met Haya in downtown Bethlehem. We went to a café and talked for a few hours over a hookah and some lemonade. Our conversation was mostly ordinary: She doesn’t know what to do with her University degree, she wants to travel Europe, her parents want her to get married and she keeps comically deflecting her mother’s attempts to set her up.
She had an English class to teach that afternoon, and she invited me to be a guest teacher, and I happily agreed. It was an afterschool English class of about ten Palestinian teenage girls in a nondescript office building with air conditioning too weak for Bethlehem in August. I played a few word games with the students and then they did show and tell. One read from her paper while she held up a pen, “My mother bought me this pencil…” Haya and I started laughing and told her that she was holding a pen, not a pencil. She said, ‘I forgot it,’ and quickly asked her friend for her pencil. The room erupted in laughter as she held up her friend’s pencil and continued reading, “My mother bought me this pencil...” It was a moment.
At the end, we had an open Q & A. Eventually the question was asked, what religion are you? I paused, and Haya jumped in with, ‘He’s all of them, Christian, Muslim...’ Those are all the religions. And I agreed with her, and then tossed in Buddhist and secular. Haya knew that it was too dangerous, more for her and her family, for me to be known as a Jew. She hopes to tell the class at the end of the semester that they had a delightful encounter with a Jew and experienced a Jewish person as a human being who can laugh and feel. But, to avoid being called a collaborator, she may not tell them, or she may tell them later in life.
Either way, it was a successful encounter, because five years ago, before she forced herself to nonviolently encounter Jews, Haya did not think Jews were human beings and she would never have invited one into her classroom. And just two years ago, before I forced myself to honestly and openly encounter and relate to Palestinians as human beings, I would never have gone into Bethlehem, and I certainly would not have gone into a Palestinian classroom.
About 50 years ago, after lovingly encountering the deep south during the march from Selma to Montgomery, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “It is necessary to go to Nineveh; it is also vital to learn how to stand before God.”
The Aleinu is a challenge. Aleynu l’shabeach l’Adon ha’kol. It is on us to worship the master of All.
I was in the West Bank about two years ago, in Gush Etzion, next to the Alon Shvut settlement, across the intersection from the Rami Levi supermarket. I was at the Roots center for nonviolence, sitting on a beat up couch under a tarp next to a cinderblock shack learning about the importance of humility when serving, when performing avodah.
Roots is a joint Palestinian and Israeli nonviolence community center founded by Ali abu Awaad and a few students of the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, a great scholar of kabbalah and the settler Rabbi for peace. I had the joy of going to Roots and meeting Hadassah Froman, Reb Froman’s widow. She told a story about a time in the early 70’s when they moved into a new settlement apartment, and on the front door there was a sticker that read, ‘The land of Israel, for the nation of Israel.’ Reb Froman became very upset and cried out, ‘They have it backwards! The nation of Israel serves the land of Israel!’ And he ripped off the sticker. Reb Froman knew that it was necessary to not objectify the land, but to relate to it in the pursuit of holiness, and to serve as its humble subject. On its deepest level, it could not be a relationship of object and owner, it must be on the level of humble and holy avodah.
Reb Froman’s disciples are stewards of the Land, they do not objectify it or its inhabitants, and they do great and effective work, pursuing peace through nonviolent community building. Roots brings together settlers and their Palestinian neighbors to learn how to see each other as human beings. When asked once why he serves the way he does, Reb Froman answered with frank humility, ‘You have to love your neighbor, says the Lord, and the Palestinians are my neighbors.’ When asked if he was hopeful that his avodah will yield peace, Reb Froman answered, ‘As my Arab neighbors say, Allahu Akbar, God will overcome. Or as you say in America, ‘Yes we can!’
May we all pursue moments of humble service and holiness, today and all year, and may we be sealed in the book of life. Yes we can, g’mar hatima tova.