The secret meaning of the bagel.
Yom Kippur 5779
September 19, 2018
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman
Behold the humble bagel, modest staple of East European Jews, abused with various colors and flavor combinations including the disgusting combination of cinnamon raisin with lox, red onion, tomato, and capers. It had to be said. But I digress. The bagel is the delivery vehicle of choice for your lox, your whitefish, your cream cheese. Behold the bagel, keeper of the secret of Yom Kippur.
Yes, the secret to Yom Kippur but we must travel quite the path before we understand. We must travel a road of repentance, a path of penitence, engage a travelogue of teshuva. We will find bumps along the way, frustration, denial, refusal and confusion but we will make our way and the secret will be revealed, the bagel will be there to welcome you. Let us begin. Indeed we already have.
Last night we began with meals more festive than just a bagel and we arrived here dressed in white, wearing a tallit, standing for Kol Nidre. We stood at attention as we heard the solemn decree that our vows we made under oath which after earnest attempt we could not fulfill, be not held against us. At different times there have been different versions. There is this version, that we wish to be absolved for when we failed. There is a version stating that future vows be not held against us. This from a time when it was possible Jews would be forced to convert to Christianity by the sword. And then there is the understanding that this has to do with vows we made to God alone, not to others in the course of regular business. Kol Nidre is serious about your soul. It is not an excuse to get out of a contract. Indeed to use it that way would bring shame upon you and embarrassment to God. Not a good way to start this day of atonement.
We finished the night in our tallit. Why is that? Because we were dressed formally for a trial. We were before the great beit din, the rabbinic court. No, even greater: it is the heavenly court. This is the metaphor and we embrace it. The secret of the bagel demands that we give these proceedings great awe and seriousness.
We have arrived to this morning. It will be, you will see, a roller coaster of prayers. We begin with the usual. Opening, barchu, shema. Soon enough, though we reach the theme of the day. “Remember us for life, sovereign God who treasures life. Inscribe us in the Book of Life, for your sake, God of life.” The famous book of life where we all want to be listed, the book of life that is opened, our lives are judged, we are written somewhere and then the book is sealed. We pray for a good seal. “Chatimah tova; a good seal for you,” we wish our friends. “Chatimah tova, a good seal for you,” they say in return. And please note that we do not ask for this chatimah tova for our own selfish reasons, a good seal so that we simply live. “Inscribe us in the book of life for Your sake,” we pray. It’s not for me, it’s for God. Let me have another year so I can do what You have asked, to make the world a better place, make myself a better person.
The theme becomes clear. We are on shaky ground. We ask to be given a chatimah tova by convincing God it would be in God’s best interest. Shaky ground, indeed.
Just a few pages later, Unetaneh tokef. “Let us proclaim the power of this day… In truth You are judge and plaintiff, counselor and witness…” If you missed it before, you cannot miss it now. The day has taken a turn. The Day of Judgment is before you. There is no escaping it. We learn again that some will die this way, some will die that way. We know this to be the very truest bit of liturgy ever written. Some with us last year are not with us this year. Some with us this year will not be with us next year. But who that will be is completely unknown. The frail live on, the healthy struck down. There is no prediction, no way to know. And now we know why white is the preferred color of the day. We dress in our burial shrouds. This is a day of the rehearsal for our deaths.
And how fortunate we are. Most people are not blessed to know that death is coming and so they are not blessed to be able to sit and reflect and consider. They are not blessed with the chance to have one last conversation with so many people. But here we are as though we are attending what could be our own funeral. This is not macabre. This is not creepy. This is a blessing! Since we do not know when the day will come we pretend today is that day. We are blessed to have such a day not so that we can hear what people will say about us but so that we can say what we must to those we love. We all know those who had died never having the chance to say this or that to him or her. We all know that regrets are found when we find ourselves out of time or simply too ill to say what we truly want to say. Here is your day! And it can be more than just, “sorry.” Perhaps today is a day to say, “I love you,” or “I’m proud of you,” or “I didn’t understand then but I do now so thank you.” We pretend it is the end so we can repair the present and live on for a better future.
How great is this day! Never mind, we move on and we are dragged down again to this prayer: “Our God and God of our forebears, pardon our failings on this day of Atonement; erase our misdeeds; see beyond our defiance.” Defiance? Defiance. Who am I kidding? I’ll never make it. Deep down I’m defiant, stubborn. I don’t want to have those conversations, I can’t bear to pretend about my death. We are told this is the day set aside for us, a gift for us. But we resist.
No, we do not resist. We embrace the opportunity of this day and indeed, we recreate the birkat cohanim, the priestly benediction as those with tallitot create duchenen, the spectral sending of blessings. We bless our congregation invoking God’s name. “May God bless you and protect you,” we intone with arms out and fingers spread. See, God, you have to bless us! We’ve already involved you, we’ve already called you!
The tempo increases. Avinu Malkeinu: a series of statements that are both pleas and demands, acknowledgement of who we are and insistence that God hear our voice, end pain and sickness and grant us a good year. This may be a rehearsal for our death but we are not going down without a fight. We are humble in our approach but demanding in our words. We demand, politely, but demand nonetheless before our father, our king.
Torah, haftarah and then we backtrack. Have we been too bold? Have we shown insufficient humility? Now we make up for it. Ashamnu, bagadnu. We betray, we steal, we scorn. We do all these things. We stand before God without embarrassment and just honestly admit that we are not perfect, that we have made mistakes. (But we don’t back down.)
Then, a little break but many of you don’t want to break the spell, don’t want to leave this world we are creating, this roller coaster of prayer. Back home there is the radio and the email and television. Probably best if you just ignore them all and take a nap. Stay away from the kitchen. It is too tempting. It is torturous and the fast is not meant to be torture.
That is why so many of you stay. We have a study session and a short break to put your feet up somewhere in the building.
We are back for mincha. Torah, haftarah and then something old that is new to us. The avodah section will return in this new machzor, the recitation of the ancient ritual. The fight is renewed as we gather some strength. The avodah section is a telling of the Yom Kippur ritual as performed in the Temple in Jerusalem. Our machzor has broken it down into 15 steps each one another level of holiness, another aspect of holiness. Each step sets us up as reaching, striving for holiness. It is a challenge to God. We are coming to You. Will you not reach for us?
And then we get into the meat of it all the avodah service. Once the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis had a decision to make. Either our connection to God was forever broken or something else would have to replace it. They chose the latter. Prayer replaced animal offerings. The three daily sacrifices became prayer three times a day. The ritual of Yom Kippur became the prayers of Yom Kippur and so on for every holiday we have. The prayers, the words weren’t just tokens. The words, the prayers themselves were just as valid as the offerings themselves. So now, instead of one Cohen Gadol in Jerusalem going into the holy of holies there are a million recitations of the Cohen Gadol going into the holy of holies in a million synagogues around the world. Large and small, around the world the ritual takes place right at this very moment. If God could be moved by one Cohen in one place saying it one time, what chance does God have with a million recitations in a million places?
Let us review. We are on trial. We acknowledge our faults and we demand God judge us fairly. We are blessed to pretend this is our last day so as to say what we would want to say to those whom we care for. We recreate the greatest ritual on the greatest day to force God’s hand. We arrive at Yizkor, a break to remember our ancestors. We pause to remember parents, siblings, spouses, and even children. We remember what they taught us. We remember what we wanted to say to them.
Then Neilah. The conclusion and so close to the secret of the bagel. All day we have been dying. We don’t eat or drink or indulge luxuries like the dead. We wear white like the dead. We fear for the book we will be inscribed in, like the dead. But we are not dead… we are just pretending which is why we are so demanding of God. Neilah, the final service. It means “locking.” The gates of repentance are closing, slowly but closing all the same. We make one tired last ditch effort. El norah alilah, the song repeats and repeats this urgent plea: “Small in Number, “ we are called, we who lift our eyes to seek You, and with trembling hearts, beseech You in the hour of Neilah. Or this: Recall our mothers, remember our fathers; renew their righteousness in our days. Be near to us as You were to them, in this hour of Neilah.
We will be tired tonight, we will be thirsty but we will not give up. We will have caffeine withdrawal headaches, and sitting too long backaches but we will not give up. We are in this fight and we will prevail. We will claw our tired bodies and our tired souls through Neilah to the very end. We have sinned but we are not sinners. You are the Judge but we demand compassion. And so it comes to pass.
And we have havdalah and we shake each other’s hands and we head out tired but victorious and this brings us to the secret of the bagel. The bagel that you will eagerly seek is not simply food for a hungry belly. It isn’t even a reward for making it through the day. It is the crust of victory and the symbol of the meaning of Yom Kippur. We have not eaten because the dead do not eat and we are pretending as if we are dead. But the living eat. The living eat to survive, no, to thrive! The living eat to live on and do great things. The bagel says, Yom Kippur, you have taught me well. You have, once again, been a difficult adversary. You have forced me to see who I am and how I wish to be and so I will eat this bagel not as the finish of the day but as the start of the year! The bagel is not the end of the day, it is the start of your life. You are not dead. You are very much alive and you have things to do, people to help, a world to make better. You eat that bagel and drink that juice to begin, to start, to announce this year I will be even better. I have been through the ordeal and now I start! We have struggled, we have humbled ourselves, we have striven, we have demanded, we have pleaded and we have won. That is the meaning of the bagel. We eat because we have won. We rise, we eat, we plan. We begin another year, a sweet new year, a great new year. The bagel is not the conclusion of the day. The bagel is the start of your life.