Sermon: Yom Kippur 5772 by Rabbi Joe Blair

Yom Kippur 5772

October 7/8, 2011
Our Balancing Act

Shabbat shalom and Gut yontif.

Good things don’t just happen. I want to recognize that, and start my remarks by acknowledging all those persons who have helped us to celebrate this holiday and this holiday season. As much as it may seem so from the sidelines, these holidays do not simply ‘happen’ on their own. It takes much effort and time by many, work and the generosity of many to bring us the music, to do the many background preparations, to provide the beautiful flowers, to prepare and set up for the food we will enjoy, and for the myriad other details that go into making this holiday time special. Without the gifts and offerings of those who have labored to bring this about, it would not be such a special time for all of us. I cannot name you all now, but please, each of you, know that your contributions towards our holiday have been noted and are deeply appreciated by me, and by many others.
We sit here now, on this Yom Kippur, filled with memories and thoughts of the year (or even years) passed, and filled too with hopes for the year that is ahead of us. We hope and pray that our Teshuvah - repentance and reparative acts - has been sufficient, that our heartfelt contrition and efforts to repair the damage we have done are adequate, that our resolve to do better in the coming days is sincere and strong enough, and that we will be sealed for good in the book of life for this year.
I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah that the imagery of the book of life had spoken to me this year. I think you all know of it. The book of life is spoken of as a ledger in which we each have a page, and on that page is written our fate, what is to become of us or befall us, in the coming year. In keeping with that imagery, on Rosh Hashanah, we asked to be written, for good, in the book of life. Now, on Yom Kippur we ask to be sealed, also for good, in that book.
Why the delay between writing and sealing? Rabbinic teachings tell us that there are understood to be three categories of person.
First is the Ra’ah – the wholly evil or bad person; for them the outcome is a foregone conclusion, and there need be no delay between writing and sealing.
Second is the Tzedek – the wholly righteous person; and for them the outcome is also a foregone conclusion, and no delay is needed.
In terms of college admissions, we might think of these as the early decision applicants – either accepted or rejected on the spot and informed immediately.
The third category, the Benoni – those in between – are the vast majority of us. For us, there is some question, and the announcement of the decision will wait.
In the college admission example, this is the group for whom the admissions committee waits for the posting of the current semester grades before making a decision.
For us as Jews, it is similar. In perhaps a more apt analogy, we are told that G-d gives us a chance, like the sentencing judge, to bring forward ‘character witnesses’ and to show community service and good works we have done – but in this case, rather than people to testify for us, this references our deeds and our heart, what we do and how we feel (this is, after all, G-d we are describing – and G-d can know both). This goes to the essence of Teshuvah. Thus, the period of the Yamim Nora’im is the time when we can bring forth our ‘witnesses’, and seek to affect the decree that was written (penciled in) on Rosh Hashanah, but is not yet (inked and) sealed. Our last chance to soften that decree towards us before the sentence is sealed and to be carried out, we understand in our guts, is Yom Kippur. That makes Yom Kippur, for most of us, a time of awe, dread, and fear. Our posture on this day with regard to G-d is similar to the defendant standing before the judge presiding over his case; we have come to the moment of truth, when both the prosecution and defense have presented all the evidence, all the witnesses, all the testimony, and all the arguments, both have ‘rested’, and now we are awaiting the pronouncement of the judgment. This is a heavy moment, freighted with much import, emotion, and meaning.
I am not G-d, and I cannot know either the transgressions each of us has committed, nor the depth or sincerity of each of our processes of Teshuvah, but I do have the sense that those who are here today have come, at least in part, because they do have hope for a good year to come. I have faith that G-d is merciful, compassionate, full of grace and loving kindness, as the prayer concerning the thirteen attributes of G-d states, and that these attributes will temper the severe decree of strict justice for each of us. So, without any cause other than that faith, I feel comfortable saying to you that I hope and expect that each of us here will be sealed for good in the year to come. Of course, I could be wrong – but I don’t expect anyone to wish for that outcome in this instance. ?
I spoke of choice and hope at Rosh Hashanah; we have talked before about what Yom Kippur means. Today I want to spend a short time with you thinking about what the entire holiday season means to us, and what it teaches.
At this moment, we are all aware that we entered the new year ten days ago on Rosh Hashanah, and we have had the period of the Yamim Nora’im, the days of awe, during which (ideally) we did all we could to repent and make amends with and to others. Now, today, we have arrived at Yom Kippur, the single most solemn day in the Jewish calendar. This should by all rights bring a sense of approaching the completion of this cycle of beginning the new year, of the culmination of this holiday season; yet, today we are somehow still in an ‘in-between’ place. We know it from the liturgy, and we feel it in our guts. Why? What does this mean?
I propose to you that this season, this time of year, is for us, as Jews, one of cognitive dissonance. As we traverse the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, and go on to Sukkot in just five days, there is a feeling of almost being in an emotionally schizophrenic mindset, on an emotional roller coaster.
On the one hand Rosh Hashanah is the ‘birthday of the world’, a time of great joy and celebration of creation, with a sense of renewal and hope, and a strong focus on enthroning G-d as king, sovereign of creation, the one who deals mercifully, having love and compassion for his children and creations. We speak extensively of the image of a father who sees and understands us, who feels for and with us. We talk about a god who seeks our Teshuvah, repentance and return, waiting patiently with open arms until the last day for even the worst among us to come back to G-d and G-d’s ways.
At the same time, this is a period also of dread and awe, of facing questions of great matter, regarding life and death, and the meaning of our existence. It is a time of examining ourselves and seeing just how much we are lacking, how we have failed and fallen short, sensing how we are being judged – whether we think of that as by ourself, by others, or by G-d.
So we see that on the one hand, it is a massive celebration – the coronation (of G-d), a birthday celebration (of creation), and a holiday day, a time of thanksgiving (for creation and its’ bounty, and for life), all rolled into one! Rosh Hashanah! Yippee!
But on the other hand, it is a time to stand in fear, with awe and dread at the majesty that judges and sentences us, to feel the full weight of the difference between G-d and ourself, and to know our limits.
Even more, in between, it is a time of self-evaluation and introspection; a time of recognizing our failures, faults and flaws, and making efforts to repair hurts we have done, right wrongs we have committed, and repair relationships we have damaged; a period of seeking to better ourselves and set our sights higher. It is also a time to pray and reflect, to speak of ourselves as of little worth, just dust and ashes, sinners, and persons who have failed to live according to their potential.
These are completely different, seemingly irreconcilable approaches, but all are part of this holiday cycle. Even more – we move from Yom Kippur almost immediately, in just five days, to Sukkot – the celebration of Creation, rejoicing in the harvest, living out the past by our deeds in building and occupying booths or huts and shaking the lulav and etrog; this is the biblical holiday upon which the common celebration of Thanksgiving is based. An emotional and liturgical movement from rejoicing, to self-abasement and acts of repair, to awe, fear, and dread, to celebration of creation and nature’s bounty. Whew – what a range! What are we to make of all this? What can we learn from this juxtaposition?
First, I would say that I don’t see it as arbitrary. It is not just happenstance that these events fall out on the calendar this way.
One thing that I would say is that Judaism is a realistic religion. It does not see us as anything less than fully human beings, with all the capacities and capabilities and flaws that we inherently encompass. It does not talk down to us. It does not assume we are incapable of comprehending complex concepts. I would propose that this very juxtaposition of seemingly incompatible events on the liturgical calendar is precisely an example of the realistic approach of Judaism, and a call to us to be fully human.
According to one famous writer, one of the traits of human beings is the ability to hold conflicting ideas simultaneously.
Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation -- the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.
? F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack Up”, Esquire Magazine, February/March/April 1936

By this juxatoposition, we are being called, then, to be ‘first-rate intelligences’ – and perhaps more, to be fully human. We are asked to hold the varying concepts and feelings that are evoked by this holiday season. We are asked not only to hold them, but to balance and relate to all of these concepts at once; to see them and accept them as related and connected.
This is not a concept that is new: it dates back at least to the early 1800’s, where we have a profound teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunam (Bonhart) of P’sisch’cha (Przysucha, Poland) (1765-1827).
Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: "For my sake was the world created. But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: "I am but dust and ashes."
These notes are not charms or amulets or magic formulas. They have no power of their own. Their only power comes from the meaning you give to them by using them in your life. The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each pocket. The goal is to create a balance between humility and joy as you go through life.
In our context, I would argue that it is not one or the other, but both at once that we must maintain. Perhaps, as human beings, we cannot have one without the other – it takes humility to find joy, and without joy one cannot achieve humility.
Perhaps, so too, for the holiday season. Our task is to find balance in life.
We are given the gift of Rosh Hashanah, and the sense of joy, of hope, of renewal that comes with it. It must come first, for without the sustaining hope and joy that Rosh Hashanah embodies, we would not engage in the hard work of introspection, looking ourself in the face in that mirror and truly seeing who and what we are, and then acting, working, to make ourselves better during the Yamim Nora’im.
Without the hope and joy that Rosh Hashanah gives us, after that period of self-reflection and effort to improve, how could we otherwise find the strength or the will to stand ‘in the dock’ and be judged by G-d?
Beyond that, continuing through the year, how else could we turn from that solemn moment of judgment and exposure, and plunge into the celebration of Creation for Sukkot, if we did not have hope and joy to sustain us?
At the same time, would we experience hope and joy at the start of a new year if we did not know that this would be a time that we could take our measure, and re-set our sights, aiming a little higher, doing a little better? That we would not just go on as we had been, but that there would be an accounting, giving meaning to our efforts to improve ourself? That there would be a moment when we would stand, exposed and vulnerable, before G-d, awaiting a judgement? Without the weight of that moment of truth hovering, would we have a need for the hope and joy that Rosh Hashanah brings? Would we experience it? I don’t think we would find it to be the same at all – for example, I love Thanksgiving and all it brings, but I don’t feel changed or purified or renewed by it, the way I do by this holiday season. It is only complex of feelings and concepts that brings me to that point.
I posit that it is specifically the combination of themes and emotional calls that speaks to us at this time of year. It is only by holding all of these complex concepts and emotions simultaneously that we can experience the full range and power of this holiday season. The meaning and import is enhanced by the complexities; we are called to reach deeper and to stretch farther, to be more fully human and more completely present and aware by this very challenge. It is only in the delicate dance that we as humans can do that it is possible to maintain the interrelationships between, and hold the competing concepts in relation to each other, and so bring our lives and our sense of meaning into balance. This very dance is what calls us to be fully human, to strive to be alive and aware and to exercise our free will, to make choices, to have hope - but to be realistic, that hope must be balanced with a sense of our responsibilities, and our weaknesses, as measured by our failures. The goal is not perfection; as a human being, the goal is to find a way to maintain the balance. Like a circus performer, we must walk the tightrope, ride bareback on the galloping stallion, or swing from trapeze to trapeze, all the while staying balanced and focused. And this holiday season is a gift to us, a way to show us that we can accomplish our human task, and live in balance, even as we careen from one precarious moment to the next dangerous perch. We have the tools, we have the ability, and the audience (G-d) wants us to succeed, or, at least, to keep trying. What more could we need or want?
Leshana tovah umetukah tichatemu. May each of us find balance, and be sealed for a year of health, prosperity, joy, and wellbeing, full of love and laughter. Ken yehi ratzon.