I tried to prepare. I really did. All the way back in April when the choir started rehearsing. All the way back in May when the ritual committee met to begin to prepare. All the way back in June when I outlined these sermons, including this one. My colleagues were amazed. Outline your sermons in June? What if something happens in the world—which it did! I answered, “I am having a strange year” and I quoted another colleague who assures us High Holiday sermons should be timeless, not timely. All the way back in July when I started reading books that fit with the themes I wanted to discuss—the funny thing was they were all about the lifecycle. Nurture the Wow by Danya Ruttenberg, about parenting. Jewish Wedding Now, Anita Diamant’s recently updated New Jewish Wedding Book, and Wise Aging by Rachel Cowan which I would like to turn into an adult study series. And this little thin book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, by Alan Lew Alan. Wow! This little thin volume had been recommended by other rabbis and turns out to be a favorite of Peg’s. She reads it every year to get ready for these High Holidays.
BEFORE WE BEGIN THIS JOURNEY, BEFORE WE WALK this map of the soul step by step, let’s first step back and take a look at the essential gesture of the journey; the single, consistent
movement that characterizes it from start to finish. I am speaking here of Teshuvah, a Hebrew word that we struggle to translate. We call it repentance. We call it return. We call it a turning. It is all of these things and none of these things. It is a word that points us to the realm beyond language, the realm of pure motion and form.
(Lew, Alan. This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (p. 19). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.)
So according to the title of the book, I am not prepared. None of us are. None of us can be. This is what Yom Kippur is all about. And as the liturgy says it fills us with awe and dread, fear and trembling.
But it is OK—even if we are not prepared, we will davven the services, we will still read Torah, we will hear the haunting words of Isaiah and Jonah, we will hear the shofar, and yes, we will break our fast, together as a community. In between we have the opportunity to think, to meditate, to study. To refocus. To renew. To reconnect. To return. That’s what teshuvah is, return.
Yes, he continues: “Death, the destination of our journey through life, also heals. Think about that sentence for a moment. Death, the destination our our journey though life, also heals. I have spent a lot of time this year thinking about death. Especially last week when I thought at one point we almost lost Simon. It always strikes me as particularly poignant when a death comes between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When we have just intones unetaneh tokef, who shall life and who shall die and maybe, just maybe by some magic if we do the right combination of tefilah, prayer, teshuvah, return, and tzedakah, charity, we can somehow avert the decree.
“Teshuvah is the little death that connects us to the big one. Or as the Rambam says: The repentant should change his name, as if to say, I am another. I am not the same person who did these deeds. It is as if that person has died. This is why this day resembles a dress rehearsal for our death. (p. 28).
Yom Kippur is the day we all get to read our own obituary. It’s a dress rehearsal for our death. That’s why we wear a kittel, a shroudlike garment, on this day; why we refrain from life-affirming activities such as eating, drinking, and procreating. We are rehearsing the day of our death, because death, like Yom Kippur, atones. And what our tradition is affirming with these claims is the healing power of time. What our tradition is affirming is that when we reach the point of awareness, everything in time— everything in the year, everything in our life— conspires to help us. Everything becomes the instrument of our redemption (p. 29).
This is the interior work that Yom Kippur requires, that Yom Kippur demands.
As part of that interior work, part of my professional development I took a course from the Institute of Jewish Spirituality on Contemplative Prayer. I thought it would help with some of the initiatives we are exploring here at CKI. At first, I really didn’t like the class. I couldn’t find how it was directly relevant to our work together here. But was we settled into this four week seminar, it became clearer.
Just six easy steps to quiet your mine and connect with the Divine. A chance to reconnect, renew, return.
Six easy steps of the Piaseczner rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, best known for working with orphans in the Warsaw ghetto before he was deported with his students to his death at Auschwitz. His quieting practice aims to put the practitioners into direct contact with divinity. In fact, it aspires to make us prophets, conduits of divinity. It aims to quiet the ego, the sense of self, sufficiently so that the heavenly flow which is always already present can be genuinely received by the practitioner. It seeks, as perhaps all prayer does, to make us intimate with God.
- Sit: Establish your posture in a relaxed, open and confident way that will support your practice and your spine.
- Mindfulness: Begin to observe your breath, thoughts, emotions or any other particular aspect of your heart-mind-body-soul.
- Cultivating Holiness: Recite silently to yourself a word, verse or phrase that you choose to cultivate a sense of holiness within. Give it your full attention and full intention.
- Cultivating Positive Dispositions: Recite silently to yourself a phrase you choose to help cultivate a positive quality you want to work on. Do it softly and gently.
- Say silently or out loud: Sing “Show me, God, your path Horeni Adonai Derechecha” relinquishing control and opening yourself to what you might discover. It is a phrase that evokes the journey we are on!
- Sit in silence, “relinquish the passions and relax the will.” Do nothing. Rest in quiet trust within the vastness of God’s Nothingness.
About 20 minutes. That’s it. And rather than listening to someone else, you are in charge, you are in control of what phrases are meaningful, of how long you spend on each step, on what you want to work on.
Now in truth, I don’t see myself as a good meditator. Silence scares me. However, for me, that cultivating holiness step became a key component of the class . There was one singular moment, when trying to mediate I heard the words, “You are holy.” And the thing was that in English—it is not clear whether it was G-d saying to me that I am holy or it was me saying that G-d is holy. Who is the you? I think it is a both/and. Since I also don’t see myself as holy, it was very reassuring. It was, in fact, a holy moment.
And I then I heard something else: “You are enough.”
It is true. Each of us is enough. We have enough tools, skills, resources right in front of us. In Kitchen Table Wisdom, by Rachel Naomi Remen when she is talking to medical school students she tells a story of Carl Rogers.
“Before every session, I take a moment to remember my humanity. There is no experience that this man has that I cannot share with him, no fear that I cannot understand, no suffering that I cannot care about, because I too am human. No matter how deep his wound, he does not need to be ashamed in front of me. I too am vulnerable. And because of this, I am enough. Whatever his story, he no longer needs to be alone with it. This is what will allow his healing to begin.”
I am enough. Each of us in enough.
You shall be holy, for I the Lord your G-d am holy.
What does it mean to be holy?
We usually translate it as set apart. The English, it usually means dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose; sacred.
Today’s portion talks about some things we should do to be holy…
It’s a recipe for holiness. A checklist. For all of us, not just the priests. Speak to the whole congregation of Israel and say to them. You shall be holy, for I the Lord your G-d am holy.
Fear your mother and your father. Keep My Sabbaths. Don’t turn to idols. Offer acceptable sacrifices. Leave the corners of your field for the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Don’t steal. Don’t deal falsely. Don’t lie. Don’t swear by My name. Don’t oppress your neighbor or rob him. Don’t hold the wages of a laborer overnight. Don’t curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind. Don’t stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds. Don’t hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor. Don’t take vengeance. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
And while the word kadosh means separate, it does not mean to separate ourselves from community. Hillel said, in Pirke Avot, Hillel said: Do not separate yourself from the community; and do not trust in yourself until the day of your death. Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place. Do not say something that cannot be understood but will be understood in the end. Say not: When I have time I will study because you may never have the time. (Pirke Avot 2:5)
Alan Lew has a little bit different spin on it. “Holiness is the great nothing that appears in all the religious traditions of the world in various poetic guises. It is an ineffable intensity, an oceanic sense, a warm flash of light, a marriage of the soul, a mighty wind of
resolution, a starry grace, a burning bush, a wide-stretching love, an abyss of pure simplicity, and as we have mentioned, it is the word the angels cry, the word that rings throughout heaven. In short, holiness is an all-encompassing emptiness. In short, holiness is heaven. (p. 122).
That’s what we are trying to obtain, right here on earth in these Days of Awe. It is also about getting our soul, our neshamah back:
“There is a story in the Torah about someone getting their nefesh back, although I use the word “someone” advisedly, because the someone in question is God. After six furious days of creating the world, the Torah says of God, Shavat vayinafash— God stopped and did nothing, or literally, God stopped and re-nefeshed himself, re-ensouled himself. So we get back to heaven by doing nothing. We reconnect with the nothing that gives our life meaning by stopping.”
That is Yom Kippur. The Shabbat of Shabbatot. The Sabbath of Sabbaths. Today. By stopping today and really resting, we get our souls back. By stopping today and pausing, we can find heaven. Here on earth. By stopping today and doing teshuvah, we can achieve holiness.
I spent the summer collecting examples of people being holy. As a rabbi, your rabbi, I am privileged to watch you rise above situations and turn them into holy moments. Here are just a few.
The Elgin Police Department lost a much beloved officer from natural causes this year. I went to the wake at Lairds and stood in line with hundreds in the hot sun. It seemed that Steve Jones touched everyone in the Elgin community. I know he made an impact on me. The entire police command staff were behind me in line. They could have pulled rank, quite literally, and cut the line but they chose to stand in line with their men (and women). However they are secure in their place and humble in their leadership. It was a holy moment. Full of compassion and grace. Not because they were obligated to but because it was the right thing to do. That’s leadership.
Later in the summer, again in my role as police chaplain I attended to a family that had just lost their husband. He had a massive heart attack and had fallen on the floor of the garage. After the body had been released to the funeral home, the Elgin Police force did something so remarkable, I get teary eyed. They washed the floor of the garage. No one told them to do so. Without saying a word, they just knew that they would not want their mom or their spouse to have to walk back in and be confronted with that mess. So they found the buckets and the hose and they just did it. This simple act, it was a holy moment. Full of compassion and grace.
In June, on the second day of Shavuot, I was called to Elmhurst Memorial Hospital as someone was dying. The family, mostly Catholic had already gathered and they wanted to say Jewish prayers for their husband, father and grandfather. The rabbi there had already sung misheberach, a prayer for healing of mind, body and spirit. I sang the last verse of Adon Olam. Then I realized that those prayers might not mean anything to the Catholics—especially in Hebrew—so I asked what they wanted to pray for. I was thinking maybe strength or patience or peace. They asked for the Lord’s Prayer, which we did. All together. Not because we were obligated to. It was a holy moment, filled with compassion and grace, because in that setting it was the right thing to do. We had a discussion about how the Lord’s Prayer is really a very Jewish prayer, and as a rabbi I have no issues saying it—and I know both the Protestant and Catholic versions—although I never quite remember which is which.
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed it be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. It is either like the Kaddish, praising G-d for life or like Avinu Malkenu, Our Father our King. So even though it was June, not close to the High Holidays, we sang Avinu Malkenu. Gently. The rabbi and I, never having met, with harmony and all the right repeats in all the right places. And at the very last note, the patient, our congregant took his last breath. His wife leaned over and gently kissed his forward, and tears. It was a holy moment. Avinu Malkenu will never be the same for me.
Visiting another congregant in the hospital, I found the wife was sitting there, keeping herself busy by crocheting blankets for the Linus Project. It was something to keep herself busy—her hands and her mind—and why not? Again, not because she was obligated to. It was filled with grace and compassion and it too was a holy moment.
Another congregant recently donated her wedding gown to an organization Marlene’s Angel Babies to be made into what they call “Angel gowns for babies born sleeping or who passed in the hospital.” Again, not because she was obligated to. The moment was filled with grace and compassion and those families who receive a gown for a still born will never forget it. It was a holy moment.
Another congregant appeared in my office just after we were home from Ann Arbor. She had a beautifully packed bag that included a bottle of wine for a l’chaim, some chocolate because that cures everything (and helps sermon writing), some coffee in case I run out, lox because she knew it was one of Simon’s favorites, and treats for the dog because you can’t forget the puppy as the note said. Again, she wasn’t obligated but that bag was filled with grace and compassion. It was a holy moment.
There are many of these moments here at CKI, I can’t possibly cite them all. They are part of our collective journey and how we create a holy community. Sometimes they are done deliberately anonymously…and that is OK. And sometimes I catch you in the act of being a mensch, a good person.
What do these moments have in common. They aren’t things you are obligated to do. They are things you do because you want to do them, not because you have to do them. They often times aren’t planned. They are over and above what is expected. No one told you that you had to do it.
It is each of us being holy—rising above and finding the divine in each moment.
Today is the day we refocus, we rehearse our deaths. How will you go the extra mile on your journey? How will you find holiness?