Beth El Congregation, Harrisonburg, VA
22 September 2015/10 Tishrei 5776
Sue Levi Elwell
שנה טובה / Shana Tova.
I’d like to speak with you tonight about your journey.
Your soul’s journey. Each soul, and each journey is unique.
We’re all on it. Yom Kippur is one of the times that we’re jostled into awareness and we may actually name this journey.
We’re all on our way through life. Over the course of our days, each of us collects, or discovers, or trips over — rocks, or creeks, or souvenirs that help remind us that we’re on our way. Sometimes those reminders come in the form of a birdsong, or a musical phrase, or a full blown lyric. Sometimes it’s a book title, or a line from a poem.
The poet Mary Oliver has accompanied me on part of my journey. Although we’ve never met, her words walk with me. Here is the conclusion of her poem, “The Summer Day.”
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
For me, that’s the challenge of Yom Kippur.
So “Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one, wild, precious life?”
What will distinguish this one, wild and precious day in the calendar of YOUR life? What is the impact of this day on our soul’s journey?
Tomorrow we join Reform Jews around the world in reading from Parashat Nitzavim, words from the fifth and final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy 29-30.
Our portion begins by addressing each of us, directly.
You are standing here this day: all of you.
We are being addressed directly, by name. EACH OF US.
ראשיכם your leaders
שבטיכם your officials,
זקניכם your elders
כל איש ישראל each man, woman and child
and the text continues:
The stranger in your midst,
from the one who cuts your wood to the one who draws your water…
each one, singled out, described more than once so that it is clear that all are included. No one is neglected, overlooked, left out.
The text continues:
for the opportunity I offer you today
is notbeyond you, nor far away.
It is not in heaven… and it is not across the sea…
No, this is so very near to you—in your mouth and in your heart… you can surely do it.
We read these words every year
because as much as we are people of remembering, we are also a people who forget. And so we read these words again, to know that
each of us matters, no matter how exalted, or how lowly.
Young and old, of many genders, varied professions,
each of us is addressed, challenged by these words.
This day is about EACH of us, and about the journeys of each of our souls.
So what are each of us going to do with our one precious day, our one wild and precious life?
In past years I have spoken with you about Yom Kippur as a day in which we practice dying: we do not eat, we turn away from our daily routines. Some of us wear special clothing, or choose not to wear leather shoes that create a distance between our feet and the earth.
On both Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, we read the deeply challenging and powerfully haunting U’Netaneh Tokef prayer, which challenges us to think about “who shall live and who shall die.” The composer Leonard Cohen writes:
And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of May,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?
Death will come to each of us. Yet most of us are unprepared, and profoundly unready.
Today, each of us is called to account.
As some of you know, Nurit and I took part in a historic walk a couple of weeks ago. The NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, organized Journey for Justice, a 40 day, 1000 mile walk from Selma, Alabama to Washington, DC, commemorating the 1965 Voting Rights March. With the support of the RAC, the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, and the CCAR, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, over 150 rabbis from across the country took turns carrying a Torah. We were proud to follow in the footsteps of Reverend Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched together in 1965 in Selma. Heschel said “I felt my legs were praying.”
Nurit and I spent Shabbat, September 12, walking with an erev rav, a mixed multitude of folks. A man from Colorado walked at the head of our group, setting the pace for the rest of us. He called himself Middle Passage, recalling the forced voyage of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. Middle Passage, who began the march in Selma on August 1, carried the American flag every day. After trudging through the rain that morning, after leading the march for 920 miles, Middle Passage collapsed and died.
Again, the words of Leonard Cohen:
And who by brave assent, who by accident,
Who in solitude, who in this mirror…
Middle Passage died with his boots on, marching for justice. In his life, he embodied memory and resilience, as he marched with others for “Our lives, Our votes, Our Jobs and Our Schools.”
Middle Passage’s death catapulted me into asking these questions:
How do I want to live my life?
Do I want to take risks, walking forward with assurance, confidence, and pride? What banner do I carry? For whom do I set the pace?
Every day we open our eyes, and the day stretches out before us.
Every day each of us,
ראשיכם your leaders
שבטיכם your officials,
זקניכם your elders
כל איש ישראל each man, woman and child
chooses whether to say YES to the possibility of light and life.
Every day we are presented with this option, this choice, this discernment.
Yom Kippur reminds us of the power of this gift
this simple gift, this gift of time, this gift of choice.
“Tell me, what do you plan to do”
with your one wild and precious day,
“with your one wild and precious life?”
Will I, today, open my eyes to the world around me.
and see that the natural world is in danger? The icecaps are melting. The rainforests are disappearing. We are poisoning and polluting Mother Earth. Is today the day that I will open my eyes to the destruction of the earth?
Will I, today, open my ears to the cries of the sixty million souls who are seeking a safe haven, this global exodus?
Is today the day I will hear the echoes of my own people’s stories in the voices of the Syrians and Afghans, the Somalians, the Sudanese, and too many more? Is today the day I will listen to the pleas of the children, parents, and grandparents who have been uprooted from their homes and now clamor to be admitted to countries that will offer a temporary resting place, and ultimately a permanent home?  Is today the day I will open my ears to the heartbreak of the greatest number of displaced persons in human history?
Will I, today, open my heart to my family: those who live in my home and in my city? Can I accept that each of us is created in the Divine image? And that my family is your family, our family? This is what the human family looks like. We are all humans beings sharing a fragile earth. Yes, there are differences between us. We have so much to learn from what distinguishes us, one from the other. Is today the day I will truly open my heart to my brothers and sisters, celebrating our differences and claiming our oneness?
Will I, today, open my soul to the journey that is uniquely mine? Will I claim, for the first time, or once again, with renewed conviction and determination, a path of commitment? Of engagement? Of intention? Of justice? Will I, on this Yom Kippur day, renew my vow to love myself AND the world?
The portion that we will read tomorrow from Deuteronomy concludes:
This day I call heaven and earth to witness regarding you.
REGARDING YOU, each one of US.
life and death I have set before you…Choose life….
How will we choose life today?
If we live today to the fullest, if we intentionally choose life, choose to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to the world, if we stake out our soul’s journey, we will arrive at the end of the day with a different sensibility, with a sense of lightness, with greater clarity, and perhaps with joy. One of the powerful metaphors of Yom Kippur is that over the course of this awesome day, our names are written, and then sealed in the Book of Life by the מלך המלכים Melech haMelachim, by the קדוש ברוך הוא Kadosh Baruch Hu, by the אדון הסליחות Adon haSlichot.
On this Yom Kippur day, I challenge each of us to grasp this metaphor of inscription in the Book of Life as our banner.
The question we must ask, with Leonard Cohen, is “And who shall I say is calling?”
Who is calling you, who is challenging YOUR soul? Who is calling you to take up the banner of YOUR journey? Is it a power outside of you, or is it a still small voice in your own head, your own heart?
The important thing is not who is calling but that we are called, each of us.
Each of us is called to open our eyes, our ears, our hearts, our souls.
We, who live with so many material comforts, take this day to be discomfited.
May that discomfort lead us to a day of decision: to no longer stand idly by, to choose life, with all its heartbreak, with all its beauty. Will you join me in raising a banner for the essential and stunning humanity of each person, and the universal right of individuals to live in peace and unafraid. Will you join me in raising the banner of justice and compassion, not for ourselves, but for all people, everywhere. For we are the people who, again and again, choose life and hope and love.
May each of us claim our power to choose a life of meaning, a life of engagement, a life that makes this world a better place than we found it. May this be our journey. May each of us use our one wild and precious life for joy, for justice, for love.
כן יהי רצון Ken y’hi ratzon.
 For at least the past 400 years, people have been keeping “Commonplace Books,” notebooks in which individuals record insights, quotations, proverbs, prayers, and much more. Distinguished from diaries or journals, such collections support the compiler’s process of bringing together information that may assist in organizing or cataloguing a life’s experiences. Commonplace books have been adopted by some contemporary students of Mussar, the Jewish ethical tradition. For more information, also see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commonplace_book.