Fixing a Hole Where the Sin Gets In
Erev Yom Kippur 5778- September 29, 2017
Rabbi Donald P. Cashman
B’nai Sholom Reform Congregation, Albany, NY
Early in my career I concluded that it was impossible to relax on the beach in August when these Days of Awe were looming in September. We now make our nearly annual trip to Cape Cod in July. But even then, I’m thinking about sermon topics and approaches, and certainly this year I was thinking our new prayer book for the Days of Awe. I even brought one along. Two months ago, Sharona and I were ordering breakfast in a restaurant on the Cape, on Route 28 in West Dennis. Our waiter was a tall young man, about 19 or 20, very eager and earnest. Sharona ordered the Cranberry Walnut Pancakes. “Awesome!” said our waiter. He turned to me. “Could I have the Vegetarian Omelet, please?” “Awesome!” he responded.
I like to think these Days of Awe are more awesome than pancakes or eggs.
Kol Nidrei teaches us that the words that come out of our mouths are important. Language is terribly important. What sold me on the new prayer book was its use of language – the translations, the prose, the poetry.
Virtually everyone here, I’m sure, has spent some time learning a second language. For some of you, I know, English is that second language, and you learned it by coming to these shores and having an immersive experience. Immersive, meaning it was sink or swim. For the vast majority of us, we learned our second language in a classroom. I’ve sat through courses in 6 languages besides English – Spanish, Classical Greek, German, Arabic, Aramaic, and of course Hebrew, Oh, yeah, the Klingon language cassette tapes, too. The worst part of learning a language, based on my broad experience with a wide range of languages on various levels over more than 40 years, is the vocabulary lists. It would be a whole lot easier to learn a language if it weren’t for the vocabulary.
Learning words from lists is the pits. And it doesn’t even have to be in another language. We all suffered with English vocabulary lists, too.
As an adult, I encounter new words chiefly though reading. I spoke to you a year or two ago about the word “ethno-religious,” that Jews are an “ethno-religious group.” Another new word- I thought I’d coined it, but I’ve seen it around, so maybe a bunch of people came up with the idea simultaneously – is “Ashkenormative,” which means “the presumption that the normative Jewish cultural and religious experience is that of the Ashkenazim.” In my house, where we regularly make hummus, baklava, kefta kabobs, shakshuka, and mujadra, we resist Ashkenormativity. Now, I need to worry about excessive cultural appropriation, though I am pleased to inform you that earlier this month I was welcomed as an associate member of the CCAR Sephardic Caucus.
Earlier this summer, I learned that the Oxford Dictionary folks name a “Word of the Year,” and the new winner of that status was “Post-truth,” which means “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Post-truth is the valuing of emotion and personal belief over objective facts. Never mind shaping public opinion; think about how much our own lives are governed by our emotions and beliefs, as opposed to objective facts.
What drives us to be here today? Facts, or emotions and beliefs? Which governs our lives: facts, or emotions and beliefs?
Some of the core statements we make at these Holy Days are beliefs, not facts: We say it is the birthday of the world. We say the world is 5,778 years old. We say “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed…” Nice beliefs, I guess, unless you really believe the world is only about 6000 years old because that’s the Biblical chronology. It’s the birthday of the world? Sure, why not?
We are not here because of these non-facts. Some of us may feel drawn here on this day, and feel the need to be with others observing the day. Others need or want this day as a connection to the past, or to their heritage, or even maybe to God. Some are here out of guilt, or to avoid the guilt they would feel if they didn’t show up. Some are here to support a spouse who feels the need to be in synagogue on Yom Kippur. People are drawn to the synagogue on Yom Kippur for all kinds of reasons, and it doesn’t matter how intense their relationship is with Judaism, or how tangential, it boils down to beliefs, and emotions. I had a student at SUNY a few years back, and Orthodox kid, who said YK is his favorite holiday. The melodies, the emotions! And some come because, well, this is what you do on Yom Kippur: you don’t have aseder, you don’t go to a pond, you don’t march down Fifth Avenue, you don’t dress in costume and give out food, and you don’t dance with the Torah or give out gifts: those are for other special days in Jewish life. Today, we sit in the synagogue. That’s a fact.
Here is another fact: we are sinners. We have, each one of us, transgressed this past year. We have violated not just some religious code, some laws and customs derived from ancient Israelite sources and their later Judean interpretations from late antiquity and the medieval Babylonian commentaries on those interpretations, and their redaction and codification in Egypt, Germany, Spain, Tzfat, Poland, Lithuania, and other places. No! We have violated our own moral codes, whatever that code might be, no matter how rooted or non-rooted in Judaism it might be. Of the many things each of us considers to be a positive virtue or a moral obligation, we fell short. And for those who are unsure of what should be or could be or might be indecent or unethical behavior, or prayer book makes many suggestions. You might think, “I never thought of that as being wrong before, but yes, it’s wrong.”
Will we deal with our sins as post-truths, not rooted in fact? Or, will we, when reading the various enumerations of sins from our prayer book tonight and tomorrow, dismiss them, gloss over them, label them “fake sins,” branding them as non-occurrences, actions not really wrong, or beyond possibility?
But we know the truth, don’t we? DON’T WE??
Fact, or Fake? Can’t we be honest with ourselves, today of all days?
One of the hallmarks of this Day of Atonement is its prohibition against bodily comforts and pleasures: The Torah tells us to “afflict ourselves.” The Mishnah, the early stratum of the Talmud, teaches this forbids eating, drinking, washing, anointing, sex, and leather shoes. We say, or we’ll thinking tomorrow by mid-day, “How can I concentrate on my past behavior when I’m hungry? My stomach’s rumbling, I can’t get past the discomfort.” This is a perfectly logical appreciation of the situation. I get that, and I’m with you. But look at it this way: we have to take ourselves apart in order to rebuild ourselves.
Earlier this year, we had our kitchen re-done. It was, we believe, the original 47-year-old kitchen of the house where we’ve been living for 19 years. The room was stripped down to the studs; the walls, the wall stuffing (the insulation), ceiling, the insulation above, wiring, plumbing, everything taken out. Over the course of a couple of weeks, new insulation, new walls and ceiling, a new window, sliding door, floor, cabinets, sinks, appliances, counter. Everything had to be broken down in order to be rebuilt into perfection, even though it will be perfect and new for only a short time.
So too with us. We have to get broken down. We have to remove and replace the old, imperfect stuff:
- the crumbling particle board of our misdeeds,
- the rusty pipe joints of our inactions,
- the antiquated insulation of our habits,
- the well-worn floor of our excuses,
- the irreparably stained counters of our morals,
- the out-of-date mindsets of our ethics,
- the mal-formed cabinets where we store our notions of right and wrong,
- the seen better days coat of paint which we think covers our foibles, and
- the overall bad design of our lives.
And just like the Electrical Inspector showed up to check things out the day I was writing this section, we pray that at the end of the day the Great Inspector from City Hall on High will approve of our personal renovation project, and grant us atonement.
Last month we were treated to a great solar eclipse. It deservedly attracted lots of attention, and among rabbis there were two big areas of discussion: one was eclipses in the Bible, Talmud, and Midrash; the second was “What’s the proper blessing for an eclipse?” The choices in the second question boil down to this: Is an eclipse a random occurrence of great natural power, like hearing thunder, or experiencing a hurricane, or is it part of מעשה בראשיתsomething natural built into creation. I myself, and most of the Reform rabbis who spoke to it, believe the latter was more appropriate, understanding that the sun, moon, and stars follow predictable paths, so predictable that we can say when these events will occur. A NASA website lists the dates and locations for 2500 solar eclipses in the next thousand years.
In the Kabbalah, מעשה בראשית , the work of creation, is preceding by not one, but several breakings down. First, of course, God’s Presence fills everything in the pre-universe, and God must contract to make room for the universe. There is a primordial light, and the light and the vessels containing that light and the sparks break up, and provide the matter for creation. All matter- including us, contains that light and those sparks. The universe is made from these broken primordial materials. Our goal, according to the Kabbalah, is to release those sparks, that will lead to a reparation of the universe; in Hebrew, Tikkun Olam.
That self-contraction God engaged in is called “Tzimtzum.” We contract our egos today, to let room in for the atonement to occur. The word “Tzimtzum” is a reduplicated verb form, built from the two letters צ tzadee and מ mem, which together make up the word TZOM, that is, “fast,” as in “Yom Kippur is a fast day.”
But more far reaching than our observance of this day as a day of fasting, is our observance of this day as a day of truth. Not of post-truth, not of fake news to ourselves, but rather a day of real truth. Our traditional wish for each other on this day is that we be “inscribed and sealed on this day for a good year, a year of life.” Rabbi Hanina, a Talmudic honey merchant, teaches us (Shab. 55a) חותמו של הקב”ה אמת “the seal of the Holy One is truth.” Indeed, in one of the 18th century versions of the story of the Golem of Prague, the being made from clay is animated by writing the word אמת/truth on it.
Today, we break ourselves down so that we can rebuild ourselves. The old goes out and the new comes in. Ideally, today we’re fixing a hole where the sin gets in. We notice and acknowledge and confess our shortcomings and failures and mistakes and sins, and we create that new self, and resolve to try, at least try, to be better human beings in this new year.
And if we can do that, “Awesome!”