This is the sermon I gave at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Maryland on Yom Kippur before the Avodah Service.
Shimon Peres once said, “The Jews’ greatest contribution to history is dissatisfaction! We’re a nation born to be discontented. Whatever exists we believe can be changed for the better.” Our long tradition of being deeply dissatisfied with the status quo and eternally optimistic about the future first appears in the words and actions of the prophets of the Bible. In this morning’s Haftorah, Isaiah stated that there is no rest for the wicked. The prophets are the fulfillment of that prophesy, and are always trying to move us forward. They bombard our indifference and despair with an overwhelming assault of grief and dreams, of sharp rebuke and unwavering hope. The prophets teach us that a better world, and ultimately a world at peace, is always within our grasp, and it is our infinite task to move toward that world. This prophetic outlook was described by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as “Some are guilty, all are responsible.” It is in this space of responsibility that the prophets hold all of us to account for the world we choose to live in. Avodah, service, is acting from that place of responsibility. In our Torah and Haftorah readings this morning, Moses and Isaiah show us two concepts that are key to understanding how to better perform avodah: Ritual and intention.
In the Torah service, we read about the rituals that make Yom Kippur into Yom Kippur: Fasting, no working, sacred clothing, animal sacrifice, and a lottery to decide which of two goats is sacrificed to a demon god named Azazel.
In the Haftorah, Isaiah tells us that these rituals are intended as acts of avodah, and that without intention, these rituals are hollow. Isaiah puts forward the intended goals of the rituals of Yom Kippur, and he scolds Israel for not striving toward those goals. He condemns Israel for fasting with bitterness and resentment with no intention of moving into a world of being humble. Of gathering for the holiday and claiming to not work, but still tending to their business. For Isaiah, if performing the rituals of Yom Kippur does not lead to freeing the oppressed, sheltering the homeless, banishing hate speech, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and taking care of one’s family, then one has celebrated Yom Kippur without proper intention. This message is tough to hear, but Isaiah, like all good prophets, ends with an energizing and unwavering hope. He tells us that if we perform rituals with proper intention, then we can restore the foundations of life and seek the favor of the world.
The power of ritual lies in its ability to symbolically create an idealized world, toward which we can move a little bit closer by performing that ritual. Ritual serves as a vehicle to transport us from the world that is into the world that can be. Ritual serves as the structure for good intentions.
For us today, fasting, blowing the shofar, and coming to synagogue are rituals that symbolically demonstrate our intention to move into a better world. Fasting breaks through the numbness and satiation of everyday life, and moves us into a world where we can feel and experience grief and pain, the all-important prerequisite feelings for unwavering hope. Blowing the shofar brings us to attention in a world where we can so often drift through mindlessly.
On Yom Kippur, our Torah reading implicitly teaches us about the importance of rituals, and our Haftorah reading tells us that without intentions based in our values, rituals are hollow. With intention and ritual hand in hand, avodah is more approachable.
On a Monday afternoon this past March, I came as close as I’ve come to performing avodah. I participated in the grand ritual of non-violent civil disobedience and was intentionally arrested along with 30 other people outside of the federal building in downtown Philadelphia. The 30 of us, joined by hundreds of supporters, protested against the keystone pipeline, climate change, and government corruption. The entire day was a beautiful experience buttressed by the coupling of the rituals of protest and the intention of repairing the world. Several Rabbis wore their tallises. This ritualistic action helped move them into a world of holiness in which they felt comforted within our tradition and inspired by its calls for justice. Many protestors brought brooms with them and we walked around a large fountain sweeping away corruption and symbolically creating a world of fairness. Several times throughout the day, all the protestors joined together in singing the words ‘We’ve got the whole world in our hands.’ By performing this ritual, I felt myself acknowledging the realness of those words. And when we sang with ruakh, ‘We have the police and their children in our hands,’ I felt a strong responsibility and compassion for those labeled as the other side that day. After I was arrested, a homeland security officer was eager to tell me that he appreciated our actions on his children and future grandchildren’s behalf.
The many rituals of the protest provided the structure for our intentions and led us closer to performing avodah.
But rituals and intentions do not exclusively mix in such dramatic ways, and it is helpful to ritualize our mundane actions. This past semester in school, I intended myself to be more patient with those who do not share my strengths. Now, when I wash my hands, my right hand washes my left hand first, to create the world where the strong help the weak. By doing this, I have noticed not only a change in situations where I used to be frustrated with others, but I have also become more able to ask for help when I need it.
I would like to offer a kavannah, an intention, for this year. May we be intentional about our rituals, and use ritual to further our intentions. May we, this year, all move closer to performing avodah.