Sunday, October 1, 2017

Yom Kippur 2017

I delivered these remarks on Yom Kippur before the Neilah service at Minyan Tehillah in Cambridge.

A few weeks ago, walking the uneven pavement of Holyoke St in Harvard Square, I passed a group on a tour. Towards the back of the group was a gentleman in a wheelchair and as I got closer to him I noticed he was wearing a bright blue cotton T shirt that said “I’m in it for the free parking.”
I chuckled to myself and then decided to say something.
“I like your shirt” I got out just before he wheeled past me
- he looked up at me, right in my eye, and said “thanks.”

It was a simple exchange, but also real. I’m often too rushed to take time for that connection. And before this summer I may not have spoken up, because I hadn’t thought of T shirts as ice breakers. I’d treated them like fashion statements, or nostalgic relics people held onto instead of “Kon-Marri-ng” them, or in the age of “but she persisted” - political forms of self expression. But I hadn’t thought of T shirts as a catalyst for connection.

This perception changed for me when my family traveled to Tennessee to witness the total eclipse last month. Thousands of people flocked to the Smokey Mountains, and a horde of us ended up in Cades Cove where hay fields flanking historic wooden cabins made for easy solar viewing. As we all parked, hauled our gear, and passed the hours until the afternoon spectacle, we busied ourselves with connecting a bit to those around us. The easiest way to start was noticing one another’s shirts. From young kids in NASA onesies, to grandparents in eclipse 2017 branded tops, this international motley crew complemented each other one at a time with our fashion finds, and our creativity. Erez and I had on matching literary Goodnight Moon tops - we got and gave out many accolades. But obviously the most profound take away from the day was not a new outlook on T shirts. It was a new way to look at the celestial beings.

Sam and I both shared on social media about the awesomeness of that day. I ranked it up there with our wedding day and the birth of our children in terms of how moved and overwhelmed I felt. Sam captured his most repeated phrase during the 2 minutes when the sky was purple and a white ring blazed around the dark circle of the moon -  “wow, wow, wow, wow.”
In response, Sam’s cousin David Stolarsky wrote his thoughts on why he too had such a spiritual experience in Kentucky during totality. His words “Maybe it's because having lived on the earth for as long as one has, one knows about the sun and experiences it every day, yet one has never actually looked at it, never actually seen it. This is the one chance to look at it with your own eyes, and wow is it the brightest white you've ever seen even while "totally" obscured. You just get a sense of it you've never gotten before, the sense you get when you look at anything. A sense of how big it is. A sense of how hot or cold it is. A sense of what might happen if you touch it. A sense of how hard it would be to move.”

I’m captivated by the way David described how looking at the sun switched his perception of it. And I wonder - what would life be like if more of our perceptions didn’t just shift, but radically changed. What would be available to us this year if we started to look, perceive, and experience the things that we know... differently. What would it mean if we started to look more people in the eye as we complemented their shirts, or as we passed them on the street. What would it look like if we experienced ourselves differently, actually looked away from our phones and turned inward for reflection. What if we experienced our parents or our siblings in a innovative ways. What if we took a novel approach to interacting with our colleagues and our political counterparts. Who doesn’t want a bit of change in our daily communication with a partner, with our kids?

The Slonimer Rebbe, the influential Chasidic Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky born in Belarus in 1911 and died in Jerusalem in 2000, writes about an approach we can all take to help ourselves see other people differently.
“The purpose of human beings is that they see with a clear lens the Divine light which shines within all Creation.” The concept he is touching on is Btzelem Elohim - that all people are made in the divine image. He explains that the line in Genesis “God saw that the light was good” isn’t referring to the physical light created, but rather Divine light. And therefore, he writes, “[With this vision] a person does not perceive a separated world in which all things are disunited. Rather, [a person sees that] everything is One and that a singular elevated power sustains everything.”

While his words may move us to want to look at the world differently, and could go on a fridge magnet or on a piece of paper taped to your computer monitor to inspire, it might be hard to generate this world view on a daily basis. What often gets us looking at something differently is an intense experience, like an eclipse, or a crisis, when changed circumstances push us to a place from where we can take on a new view.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his introduction to the machzor/prayer book we’re all using today, says that the High Priest in the Beit Hamikdash/Jerusalem’s Holy Temple on Yom Kippur “was a glittering spectacle, the closest of encounters between man and God at the supreme intersection of sacred time and space.” Our own Yom Kippur eclipse.
“But” Rabbi Sacks continues, “after the destruction of the second temple all of this went away and our people were left wondering how would we move on, and also how would we atone?” So, here is where we have an example of taking on a new view, seeing a possibility. Rabbi Akiva bravely forges forward and in Mishna Yoma says that God would purify His people without an intermediary. Again in the words of Rabbi Sacks “Ordinary Jews could come face to face with the shechina, the divine presence... The drama that once took place in the Temple could now take place in the human heart - Yom Kippur and the Jewish faith was saved because he was able to perceive things in a different light than they had so often been seen.”

Judaism as we know it today is thanks to not just this one person, but to many people throughout our history looking at things differently - sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of love, or pain, or fear, or hope.
Often these efforts to look at things differently, experience things differently, are driven by leaders. Leaders have the challenge of getting other people on board with a new vision. So what means do they, or any of us wanting to make a change, have available?

Dr. Erica Brown in her new book “Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet” draws on something I never paid attention to before in the text of Jonah that we read this afternoon. The king of Ninveh, after hearing Jonah’s prophecy, decreed that not only should the people fast and don sackcloth in order to repent, but the animals should too. Trying to make sense of this strange proclamation Erica quotes several commentators who suggest that the king was trying to employ an action that would shift people’s perspective. “Human beings may fast and dress in sackcloth and yet not be inspired to change at all.” Erica writes.
“These may be perfunctory rituals to achieve a “look” of repentance rather than an authentic art of change. But human beings who lack compassion for each other may still have compassion for their animals, especially when they witness them in a state of suffering.” Where people couldn’t see a way to be compassionate with each other, if they saw their animals fasting and suffering it would stir their compassion and that in turn could extend to seeing their fellows as worthy of compassion too.

So we can use this kind of trick, but it can also be a trap. When have we been nicer to a cat than to a colleague, to a passing acquaintance than to our own family member? It’s important to be nice to all these beings but when we are not really seeing the others in our lives we are missing what they need. And the same goes for missing ourselves, and what we need. When are we giving ourselves too much credit or not enough credit, pushing ourselves too much or not enough? This happens when we aren’t in touch with the movements of our own heart.

Last year I shared an alternative form of viduy where we use positive words to acknowledge the good things we’ve done this year, to foster more positive and compassionate thoughts about ourselves and our deeds. Instead of just - ashamnu (אשמנו), bagadnu (בגדנו), gazalnu (גזלנו), dibarnu dofi (דברנו דפי) – we have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously, we have robbed, we have spoken slander - I also said the affirmitive words penned by Rabbi Avi Weiss - ahavnu (אָהַבְנוּ), beyrachnu (בֵּרַכְנוּ), gadalnu (גָּדַלְנוּ), dibarnu yofi (דִִִּבַּרְנוּ יֹפִי) - we have loved, we have blessed, we have grown, we have spoken positively.
For those of us who used that innovative text - did it help us in any way to perceive ourselves differently on judgment day?

“One knows about the sun and experiences it every day, yet one has never actually looked at it, never actually seen it.” Who have we not truly looked at this year?

I want to finish by sharing with you once more about how I experienced myself at the eclipse. As I saw a crown of light from the sun, circling the darkness of the shadow of the moon I lent my voice to the collective whooping. We needed to give sound to the tingling in our bodies the sight produced. My eyes filled with tears and I held my kids close as I looked at the sky, marveling at the mystical thing I was witnessing. The spectacle lasted less than two minutes, and I cried the whole time. Like in these final moments of Neila on Yom Kippur that we are about to enter into - I tried to soak up the moment. I tried to connect with myself, my family, the crowd, the universe, with God. When the light came back our glasses went back on and immediately I wondered when I'd be able to see a total solar eclipse again, and brush with the divine in a way I never imagined possible. I do not plan to wait until 2024 to see my next eclipse - but I also know I don’t need to travel far to be able to see things differently, from a new perspective,
to experience something that I see every day in a totally new way.
I just need to look someone in the eye.
I need to say “I like your T shirt”
- even if it’s saying that to my very own self.

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