These are the five short sermons I gave at the Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service in 2015 at Beth El in Bethesda, Maryland. Each one is about the prayer about to be said.
Ki hineh kakhomer:
A paradox is a true statement that seems self-contradictory, like I want the tastiest and healthiest thing on the menu, or I fast on Yom Kippur for spiritual sustenance.
In Judaism, we have many paradoxes. One is, our actions have cosmic significance and we are insignificant dust. The Kabbalah teaches us that we have the power to repair the world and affect God with every good deed, and Pirkei Avot teaches us that we are from worms and we will return to the worms. The prophets teach us that God is in an emotional relationship with us, and Maimonides teaches us that we are so unimportant that God would not even care to look at us. Sometimes we feel like we are masters of our universe, and sometimes we feel tossed around by the chaotic waves of destiny.
This paradox was explored by an old country Hassidic Rebbe. He used to give everyone he knew two cards, one to keep in each pocket. The card for the left pocket read, “You are but dust in the wind,” and the card for the right pocket read, “The entire universe was created for you.”
Life is like a pendulum, the Rebbe would explain, when you begin to feel that you are very important, reach into your left pocket and know that you are but dust in the wind. When you feel insignificant, reach into your right pocket and know that the world was created for you.
On Yom Kippur, we swing the pendulum toward humility, we fully reach into our left pocket and start with the knowledge that we are dust in the wind, or in the words of the next prayer, like clay in your hands.
To set this intention, I quote one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, Dr. Carl Sagan:
“We would not have known beforehand that the evidence would be so repeatedly and thoroughly incompatible with the proposition that human beings are at center stage in the universe… We have not been given the lead in the cosmic drama… We live in the cosmic boondocks, we emerged from microbes and muck, apes are our cousins. Our thoughts and feelings are not fully under our own control. The trapdoor beneath our feet swings open, and we find ourselves in bottomless freefall… We have good reason for humility.”
The next prayer centers on a few lines that God said to Moses after the golden calf incident. After the nation turned to idolatry, God was so angry that he said to Moses, and I paraphrase, ‘I’m walking out on you and that stubborn nation. An angel of mine will take you the rest of the way through the desert, because if I stick around, I will kill you all.’ Moses then has the audacity to reply to God’s anger with an ultimatum and a demand. He first tells God, ‘If you won’t continue with us then we won’t continue at all, we do this together or not at all.’ Moses then demands a one on one encounter with God. God reluctantly agrees, and when Moses treks up Mount Sinai the next morning for a sunrise confrontation with his angry God, God meets Moses and says, ‘Adonai, Adonai, El rakhum v’hanun. God, God, God of mercy and compassion,’ and God reaffirms the covenant and agrees to not leave the people. Moses responded to the great sin of the golden calf by confronting God, and God responded with mercy and compassion.
Moses, who had the boldness to confront God, is also the most humble person who ever lived according to the Torah, and it seemed paradoxical that the Jewish archetype of humility has the nerve to encounter a furious God. To explain Moses’s humility, Rabbah Melanie Landau of Jerusalem points to the 11th century French commentator Rashi’s equation of Moses’ humility with his radical patience and ability to bear himself. Moses had the patience to sit with difficult thoughts and uncomfortable feelings, and to push deeper into the difficult and dire to the point of confronting the divine, and Moses found mercy and compassion.
It is so often the first instinct to shy away from frustrations and confusions, to be spooked by the shadow of our own doubts. We often lack the resilience to fully research our past sins and to sit with our present problems and future hopes. I hope that, like Moses, we can find the humble courage to confront our world and ourselves, to demand an encounter with God and to find mercy and compassion.
When we strive to encounter the truth, we can get caught up in paradoxes, and in a paradox, a clear way to act is not so clear.
The crescendo of this next prayer is a paradox: Hadesh yameinu k’kedem, Renew us, in our days, as of old. Within these three words we hold the hopes of the future, the reality of the present, and the memories of the past. Sometimes, when we hold the past, present, and future together, a paradox forms and we are beyond a clear path. For example, I hold the past traumas of the Jewish people alongside the current reality of the middle east, alongside my desire for a peaceful future. So, how should I feel about the Iran deal? I’m still reconciling that paradox.
This past year, I lived in the paradox of hadesh yameinu k’kedem. I lived in Israel, a modern high tech country with an ancient story. I lived in Tel Aviv, a city that roughly translates as an old new spring. Twice a week, I travelled from the modern secular coast up the hills into the ancient religious city of Jerusalem. In Tel Aviv, I studied at Bina, the secular yeshiva. At Bina, Israelis are exploring and figuring out the paradox of hadesh yameinu k’kedem. The values and memories of the past are put in conversation with present day realities and future hopes and dreams. What emerges is beautiful creativity. A modern Israeli Talmud is being written. A school of democratic thought rooted in the wisdom of our ancient monarchies is being formed. Ancient holidays are being celebrated in new ways and ancient customs are free to evolve. When the conflicting past, present, and future are held together, we can reach a deeper understanding and find a way forward.
On Yom Kippur, we enter into this paradox of time. We strive to recognize our past, present, and future, reconcile contradictions and emerge from the day with a more informed and creative way forward.
Intro to Viddui:
In 70ce, as the Romans besieged Jerusalem and the collapse of the Jewish state was imminent, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai turned his back on the Temple and snuck out of Jerusalem at night in a coffin. He went north to Yavneh in the Galilee and opened the Rabbinic academy that would write the Mishnah and largely determine the post-Temple Judaism we still live today. Yochanan Ben Zakkai abandoned the war effort against the Romans and fled Jerusalem on the eve of her destruction to go north and start building the future of Judaism.
Years later, Yochanan Ben Zakkai lay on his deathbed and began a vidui, a confession. He began by weeping, and his students asked him why. He said, there were two roads in front of me, one led to paradise, and the other straight to hell, and I do not know which road I walked down.
Yochanan Ben Zakkai teaches us that a confession must begin with doubt, because a doubt is an idea that is still alive.
With courage, humility, and resilience, we must doubt. We must doubt every angle and every perspective. We must doubt every exchange and every event. We must doubt every action, reaction, and inaction. We must shake our perceptions and shatter our indifference. We must split the truths that we hold dear into frustrating contradictions and sit in the shattered pieces of our perceptions, and pray that we may discern our true confessions.
As we go into viddui, I would like to offer a prayer that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan used to begin his classes with at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, “From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth, from the laziness that is content with half-truths, from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth, O God of truth, deliver us.”
There is a tradition from the old country that in every generation there are 36 saints hidden throughout the world on whose good deeds and humility the world rests. I think I met one of them two years ago. He explained to me the meaning of this next prayer, rachmana, which is Aramaic for ‘the merciful.’
Two summers ago, I sat on the roof of a hostel in downtown Denver watching the sun set, and was joined by a young fundamentalist Christian couple and a wandering old saintly looking Chinese American construction worker with a brown bagged bottle. We started talking about life, and then about God. The fundamentalists mechanically quoted scriptures describing God and Jesus as just and powerful, the king of the universe who strictly governs and judges harshly. The older man told tough stories about his life, how his pregnant grandmother was scarred and driven out of Mao’s China, how his loving mother had raised him by herself and had died just a few years ago, and how he understands why his two beautiful daughters need some space from him right now. With tears in his eyes, he described his theology, the way he interprets the world. The world, he said, is like a giant womb. We have everything we need, and unconditional love and mercy sustain us by virtue of our existence. We are cared for in the great womb, just like his loving mother always cared for him. He asked me what the Hebrew word is for womb, and I said, it’s rekhem. And then I said, it’s the same word as mercy, rakhamim, and as God, rakhamim, or rakhmana. A word of ours for God is our word for mercy is our word for the womb. When I said this on the roof in Denver, the tired old wanderer started weeping.
About 1,700 years ago, the Rabbis of the Talmud decided that God prayed, and that this is the prayer God says, “May it be My will that My mercy may prevail over my other qualities, so that I may deal with my children mercifully, and stop short of strict justice.”