Yom Kippur morning
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman
One of the great High Holidays pieces is Shema koleinu. The arrangement is by Max Helfman, a very creative soul who taught for a time at our Reform Movement seminary and died in 1963. The words we are about to read are on page 336: “Hear our voice, Eternal God; have compassion upon us and with that compassion accept our prayer. Help us to return to You, God, then truly shall we return. Renew our days as in the past.”
Let’s look at this for a moment. Perhaps just reading it, the tone seems calm, bland even. In truth, however, the grammar is all in the imperative. We are imploring, no actually, we are demanding of God what must be done. “Hey,” we shout, “I took off from work. I dressed up. I’m here. God! Here our voice! I did not come here to leave empty handed. Have compassion upon us!” It’s all very much a demand almost chutzpadik. And the music adds to this urgency, this intensity. It builds and builds and builds until the cantor comes out practically screaming for God to hear our voices. It seems polite in the English but it’s all very demanding in the Hebrew.
Here’s how it sounds.
What a strange experience this yelling at God, this notion that we say, “You have to do this.” Let me just say, this is very Jewish, very much our way. Our very name, Israel, means struggles-with-God. Our Torah is filled with stories of loyalty to God and then ignoring God and then fighting with God. We are not a passive people. We are not just prostrating ourselves before the Lord on High without a good argument about it first.
This dialogue with God speaks to the dynamic of Yom Kippur. Coming from a staid, rational Reform Movement, we are very passive. We sit. We listen, we read. We make our way through the liturgy well enough. But the words themselves speak to grander drama. There is shouting and demands. There are also modest moments of humility where we lay ourselves bare, opening ourselves to the deepest criticism. There are moments of apology so moving we are reduced to tears. The liturgy of Yom Kippur is a script of a day long drama filled with anguish. This is why Yom Kippur for many is so exhausting. It is hours and hours of arguing, discussion, bargaining, yelling, listening.
Again, the founders of Reform, in their quest to fit in and not be as emotional as our eastern European co-religionists, quieted the proceedings down but the storyline is still there.
I think that storyline can draw us in even if we have questions about God. There are Jews who just don’t believe in God and there are many more Jews who have a difficult time with the anthropomorphized God we meet in the machzor. To this I say, give yourselves over to the story and understand the drama. Don’t worry too much about the way the characters are drawn. Down in New York on Broadway, thousands of people each week are moved by the drama taking place amongst cholera and battlements in the streets of Paris and the story isn’t even true. If they can give themselves over to that fiction because they understand the point of the tale is the point, we can give ourselves over to this drama as well.
This dialogue with God, this yelling at God is all part of the contortions we go through to make Yom Kippur not be passive, not to rely on the grace of some higher power. Listen, we demand of that higher power, listen we demand of our inner psyches, have compassion upon us! Accept my prayer! Accept my sincere efforts! Help us to return to You! Some of us open ourselves up to God to care for us and some of us in the comfort of the therapist’s office implore our inner selves to be more kind to us, we struggle to give ourselves permission, to let ourselves off the hook, to force ourselves to acknowledge fault. Who knows where these arguments really take place: with God, with our psychological makeup, with some combination of the two? Regardless, the battle is joined. Let the drama commence.
What a curious thing shema koleinu is. What a strange thing to ask and demand of God to be compassionate? We are distant from God because we have erred; we have slipped from the right path. By all rights God could say, you made the mistake, you fix it. Yet, instead we –again- demand of God, “Help us return to You.” Yes, it’s our fault but you can’t, you simply can’t abandon us. Why not? After all, it seems God can do anything God wants. The answer is, You just can’t. You simply can’t. God, we have a brit and you cannot abandon us.
I love this approach to God because it works in so many ways. For those who believe in a very personal God it contains an expectation of intimacy. Yes, of course, one must be respectful of God but one must not be so awestruck as to lose one’s way, to lose the ability to speak and advocate and insist, demand, remind God that the brit, the covenant we share is a two-way street. We will be your people and you will be our God but that has a few requirements, saith us.
For those who struggle with belief in such an immanent God, this insistence offers an intellectual understanding of how Jews over the ages have seen God and that viewpoint is not one of irrational and foolish fear; it is not a belief based in terror of an imaginary being. It is a belief in a God who works with us, who listens to us, who does not expect silent submission. It’s a more vigorous relationship than often imagined and dismissed.
For those who struggle with faith, fall upon the old chestnut that God is inside our selves and struggle with your soul to be both more repentant for and more forgiving of your actions.
After this struggle comes Ki Anu Amecha v’Atah malkeinu, which we will sing in just a moment. “We are Your people, You are our ruler.” You have a role, I have a role. And your role is harder. Leadership is hard, responsibility is hard. Caring for so many is hard. It is much harder, much more difficult to be the shepherd than it is to be the sheep. But that is how it is. You, God, offered this covenant. You knew the terms of this agreement and you accepted it. And now, as we gather here on this Day of Atonement, we are doing the hard work of trying to change and we hold you accountable to do your part. We are doing our best so get ready to atone. That is the brit, that is the covenant, that is your job. And so we sing Ki Anu Amecha with a full voice just to add a little reminder.
And how does this play out for us? What is the effect of Ki Anu Amecha on our psyches? We remember we are not the center of the world. We are not the ones in charge. We are part of something larger than ourselves. We are not the shepherd, we are not the vintner, we are not the creator. We are just one of many sheep, one of many vines, one of many creations. We are each infinitely valuable but also one among millions. We are unique but then again, truly, just part of the masses. Each one of us is but one grape amongst the rolling hills of the vineyard. We are not the center of the world.
I’ve been wondering if we’ve forgotten that idea lately. We’ve seen degradation in civility in what used to pass for reasoned conversations and political debate. The Iran nuclear agreement is one area where Jews turned on Jews to a very concerning way. Yes, the stakes are high but the screaming and accusations and name calling has found a new low. I’m not a prude over a little political theater in the service of advocacy. That’s nothing new. But we saw not advocacy but anger, accusations and assumptions that we were right and anyone who disagrees is wrong and an idiot. Everyone is either Neville Chamberlain or a warmonger. Everyone is a traitor. Everyone is leading the Jewish people to destruction. No one really listens to each other. We yell at each other.
It’s amazing how such a complicated agreement could be understood so intimately by so many, so quickly that they feel free to demonize –not just disagree or refute but demonize- the other.
This happens when we are the center of the world. This happens when we think that this grape is truly the better grape. Gone is discussion, gone is learning, gone is reason and reasonable discourse.
I love the Kol Yisrael project but one of the problems I see is that with imperfect knowledge, people feel free to trash some decision or mock some issue or grandstand about this or that. It’s easy to do that. Some people take pleasure in it, but it also means that the gossiper feels he is the center of the universe, that she doesn’t need to discover more info, that they don’t need to consider anyone else. Gossip leads to half-knowledge, unnecessary drama, roiled feelings and distractions that keep us from making good, smart plans. Gossip and half-truths get in the way of clear thinking. They cause hurt feelings when none need to be hurt. They drain us of the energy so many put into this project.
I know gossip is a worldwide phenomenon but can we try to control it at least in our small corner? Yom Kippur doesn’t imagine a perfect world. Indeed we recite merely some of the long list of sins that exist out there. Yom Kippur knows the way of the world. But Yom Kippur calls us to make ourselves better. Maybe just this corner of the world could be better. Maybe the rest of the world will be mean to each other but we, here, we will resist the trend and we will treat each other nicely, respectfully.
Maybe, as we have expectations as to how God must treat us, we should implore each other to treat us with more respect.
We are a pushy people. We have been since Abraham talked back to God. We don’t take things sitting down but we should come to that advocacy with some humility. We can say: I do have issues I need addressed, I do have things to discuss, I do have concerns and sometimes I am frustrated. So who can I talk to about this? That’s a better answer than a gossipy soapbox.
Shema Koleinu is about us demanding God to treat us with the respect we deserve as people who are trying our best. Shouldn’t we demand that of each other, to demand that we knock off the mean-spiritedness and come to each other with respect and care and, dare I say, a basic love for another of God’s creations? We should. And soon enough, after we demand of God and we demand of each other, we will arrive at the vidui, the confession where we will own up to our own sins, our own gossiping, our own degradation of civility. We’ll get there soon enough and we will beat our chest and feel the self-flagellation and know we can do better. But for now, we need help so we turn to God demanding that God help us be the best we can be.
We are not the center of the world. We need help. We are merely the vines in a vineyard. You are the vintner. But with your help, what a thing we can create. What a world we can make.