Power of the Day
Yom Kippur 5772
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Last year, as you know, my father died erev Rosh Hashana. All sorts of people stepped in to take over for me during the next day because my family wanted to gather and begin making arrangements right away. Astonishingly, the Jewish funeral home was open on Rosh Hashana so off we went to the upper west side of Manhattan.
Now, I am fond of telling you to withdraw from the world when Shabbat or our holidays arrive. I try to get you to engage Rosh Hashana or whatever holiday it is. I like to tell you about what takes place in your soul when you engage your heritage and withdraw from the workaday world. I know it is refreshing because I taste that joy every week and I relax with family every Shabbat and I have a chance to tell the world it has no pull on me; I do what I want on Shabbat and holidays. But every now and then I am placed outside of that warm cocoon and I am put back in the real world. Not often but it happens. And so, as I travelled down to Manhattan, I left Rosh Hashana.
You leave the environment we create here and, of course, the whole rest of the world just keeps going on. No one out there cares that it is Rosh Hashana. The funeral home didn’t care. Manhattan didn’t care. It looked like any other day. There were a lot of fun things going on out there, interesting things, important things, entertaining things. Looked great, actually.
It is very easy to think that what we do, what goes on in here is really very lame. The world continues, emails fly, money is made, homework is assigned while we hunker down in here ignoring reality. Crazy, right? If your head is in the world out there, then the High Holidays in here are really just one big annoyance and not connected to anything real. This experience will not be meaningful and as soon as you can, you’ll race out of here immediately entering into the outside world with Yom Kippur a distant memory. Give a couple hours to it and you’re done; head back to school or work, catch up on emails from home. Plenty of Jews do just that. I am aware.
But at the same time, plenty of Jews want to get their head out of the world out there. They crave the quietness Yom Kippur brings and they want to luxuriate in the novelty of spending an entire day away from the world thinking deeply. A lot of Jews and, to be sure, quite a few non-Jews are finding meaning in an experience of the mind, an engagement of the soul. There is more to us than just work. There is our soul that we need to water, every now and then so we can better meet the world. That is what we do here. We take that moment and use it to involve a different part of our brain for a little while.
I think most people who have trouble getting into the spirit of Yom Kippur struggle because they don’t really understand the ideas behind it. Yom Kippur is often viewed as thrust upon us, something to be endured. But if we understood the ideas connected with it, it could be something we chase after and seek.
Shalom Ansky in 1914 wrote a play called the Dybbuk. In it he wrote a soliloquy for his character Rabbi Azrael. Rabbi Azrael describes the ancient Yom Kippur but he is speaking about more than just that. Ansky through his character empowered Yom Kippur and in effect empowered every Jew who showed up at synagogue on Yom Kippur. He took it from being one day of making an appearance to a beautifully captured portrait of the original symbolism of the day. I want to read you the soliloquy. Keep in mind that it carries words and phrases that are true to its time. I found sanitized versions out there but I wanted to read a faithful translation. The original was in Yiddish.
Ansky will write of the Holy of Holies, that chamber deep in the Temple in Jerusalem that held the Ten Commandments. He will speak of a number of languages and peoples which we know is not accurate but it is the traditional number that signifies many. Finally, some of you may notice that Ansky has his rabbi distinguish among holy and not. Rest assured that while Hebrew is considered the holiest language, that does not denigrate other languages but you can’t expect a Jew to think any less of our special tongue, now can you? But most importantly, look at what Ansky, a socialist, has his rabbi do with the power of this one day.
“The world of God is great and holy. In all the world, the holiest land is the land of Israel. In the land of Israel, the holiest city is Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, the holiest place is the Temple. And the holiest place in the Temple is the Holy of Holies
There are seventy nations in the world and among them the people of Israel is the holiest. And the tribe of Levi is the holiest of the twelve tribes of Israel and among the Levites the holiest are the cohanim, the priests. And among the cohanim, the holiest is the high priest, the Cohen Gadol.
There are 354 days in the Jewish year, and among them the holy days are sacred. And Shabbat is holier than the holy days. And the holiest of all the holy days, the Shabbat Shabbaton, is Yom Kippur.
There are seventy languages in the world and the holiest among them is Hebrew. And the holiest work in the Hebrew language is the Torah and its holiest part is the Ten Commandments and the holiest word in the Ten Commandments is the name of God.
Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the four holiest sanctities gather together precisely when the Cohen Gadol enters the Holy of Holies in order to pronounce the ineffable name of God. And at this immeasurably holy and awesome moment the Cohen Gadol and the people of Israel are in the utmost peril for even a single sinful or wayward thought in the Cohen Gadol’s mind at that instant might, God forbid, destroy the entire world.
Every piece of ground on which a person stands when he raises his eyes to Heaven is a Holy of Holies; everyone created in the image of God is a Cohen Gadol; every day in a person’s life is Yom Kippur; and every world which a person speaks from his heart is God’s name. Therefore, every sin and every wrong committed by a man brings the world to destruction.”
This is the essence of what we do when we gather. We re-enact a moment when one special person in one unique place on only one day said just one word. The heart of Yom Kippur is this moment, imagining we are there in the Temple in Jerusalem watching as the Cohen Gadol goes in to say God’s name for our sake. And we tremble, that if anything goes wrong, if he faints, if he mispronounces, if he gets the jitters, the whole thing falls apart. It is like scaffolding being set up against a building. There is a moment, one brief moment between secure and not secure and in that moment, brief though it may be, that we hold our breaths.
This was the Cohen Gadol’s task, to intone God’s name in order to seek a good year of blessing for all the people. That is an amazing moment but it is even more amazing if you can put yourself there and feel that trepidation and remember that Ansky did not make up this story. It really happened. It happened for a thousand years until we lost the Temple during the time of Hanukah. Want to know why Hanukah is a big deal? Because until the Maccabees won, we couldn’t have that powerful Yom Kippur moment. But after the Hanukah rebellion, the Cohen Gadol again lived out this Yom Kippur moment until the Romans destroyed the Temple for the second time. We, the Jewish people, were dispersed without the Temple so we recreated the experience of that one day with one word at one place with one person with dramatic prayers and powerful music where we all gather together on one day to recite prayers that won’t be said for another year.
We recreated that nervousness with Kol Nidre, interminably standing while we carefully ask that our mistaken vows be forgiven so that we can enter the body of our nerve wracking day clean. We substituted the Cohen Gadol’s intoning of God’s name with our intoning prayers and acknowledgements of our mistakes and promises to be better. We don’t eat to mimic death that might come should this whole thing go badly and then we eat at the end of the day to proclaim: we have survived; all is right. We have another year to begin.
And this, all of this power and drama and tension is found in our day here at synagogue on Yom Kippur.
If you know that, this day is awesome. If you don’t know that, this day is boring.
Now you know.
And then look at what Ansky, the socialist and playwright does with the last bit of the Rabbi’s speech. He takes that power of one day with one person at one place with one word and recasts it for all of us, anywhere, anytime with every word: “Every piece of ground on which a person stands when he raises his eyes to Heaven is a Holy of Holies; everyone created in the image of God is a Cohen Gadol; every day in a person’s life is Yom Kippur; and every world which a person speaks from his heart is God’s name. Therefore, every sin and every wrong committed by a man brings the world to destruction.”
Be bad, and you, you, diminish the world and bring us that much closer to destruction but you, you behave well and positively and righteously and you bring us that much closer to a better world, to a peaceful world. And all this happens not miraculously but simply because you choose to live your life that way. It is not a miracle, it is an act of will and volition.
This is the secret of Jewish living. It is an act of will and volition. Here at the synagogue we will continue to find interesting activities and attractive approaches to our heritage. I will continue to try to make it engaging but ultimately, you have to step forward to be engaged. It comes down to will and a desire to be in the game, this game, our heritage.
That is what you should be doing here: engaging the day. Are you? Challenge yourself to think about something you don’t normally think about. Challenge yourself to give up eating and say my mind is in control of my body, not the other way around. Embrace the reality of what is in here. When you go home, don’t turn on the television because that is the gateway to out there. Can you do it? Make a list of what you hope to accomplish. Talk to a spouse about your dreams are for the next year. Call a friend to keep up a friendship. Yes, it may not be what you normally do but that is the point.
Shalom Ansky beautifully explained the thoughts and imaginations we should all have on this day. And then he offered his challenge to remember that we are in control of our lives and our destinies. If we want to experience the richness of Yom Kippur it is there for us. If we don’t, it will evaporate. If we want a meaningful day, it is up to us. How we act is up to us. How we think is up to us. What we experience is up to us. What we feel is up to us. No one can make you feel the awesomeness of this day. You have to make it happen. So many Jews ignore this day. They are out there and they have lost the power of this day. But you, you are here. You are well on your way to engaging the power of this day. Will you do it? Can you do it? Will you let yourself feel the awesomeness of this day?