Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur address, given at East End Temple, 245 E 17th Street, New York City, September 21, 2007

A lone wolf points her nose to the sky and howls. I listen in awe to the haunting sound resembling that of a shofar as she pours her heart out. She understands that something out there is listening, so she fills the sky with gratitude.

We are tied to the universal call of return. Species of all kinds—from microorganisms to whales—respond to the call. Salmon return from the salt waters of the Atlantic to the rivers where they were hatched, and the freshwater turns crimson as they pour-in to complete their journey home. Birds wing their way to warm climates as their ancestors did, and to arrive at their far-away destinations, they calibrate their internal compass during rest stops. We learn that if birds don’t have enough time to rest, they get lost. Likewise, therapists point out that people who fail to make time for important transitions become sick and are eventually forced, despite of themselves, to retreat from their ordinary lives.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, wrote a great deal on teshuvah—our return. Rabbi Kook expounded on the notion that penitence was planned before the creation of the world. Before any sin had occurred there had already been established the repentance for it. Long before the sun cast a shadow on this earth, before a word was spoken, a path was laid for our return—therefore, the spirit of penitence forever hovers over the world.

There is always a before. Before the letter Bet as in Breishit, there is an Aleph—the silent aleph of compassion. We were whole before we got sick, and since penitence was created before we were, we have an opportunity to experience Yom Kippur from a new perspective. This means that every defect is destined to be mended. It means that everything is OK, and despite our shortcomings, we are OK.

In her book, A Return to Love, Marianne Williamson tells us that our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, and suggests that our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We were born to manifest the light within. As we let our light shine, we give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

The heart has no greater yearning, the soul no greater love than to return. Human pain stems from separation—whether from ourselves, an idea, or another person. What we push away is what causes us sorrow. Today is the time to stop pushing, but instead, a time to draw near. Without teshuvah the world could not have endured. It is through teshuvah that all levels of existence are continually being healed and restored to their original form.

During the year we are preoccupied with the routine of our lives and the vanities of the world. Yom Kippur is a bridge that allows us to leave behind our daily regiment and cross into a domain where grace resides.

For Liberal Jews, the Yom Kippur Torah reading is Nitzavim. Nitzavim could easily be labeled the parshah of return. The map for that return is abundantly offered in the text, beginning with the first verse: Atem nitzavim hayom koolechem lifnai Adonai—You stand this day, all of you, before God. The Torah is affirming hope: we stand together—firm and upright. So, how do we achieve this unity? An answer can be found in the first word: Atem—You. If we switch the last two letters of Atem, it spells Emmet—truth. In other words, you will stand firm—how? By being truthful.

Last year a friend in seminary told me that when she asked God to inscribe her in the Book of Life, the answer she heard whispered back was: “Don’t be a fool—write your own page!” In this week’s Torah portion we find a commandment to do just that—Ve’ata kitvu lachem et hashira hazot—Now, write for yourselves this song. The text is referring to Ha’azinu—the song-poem of Moses, but is undoubtedly pointing to our story and our song.

The Torah begins with the letter Bet, and ends with the letter Lamed. If we join these two letters they spell Lev—Hebrew for ‘heart’. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught that if we dwell in the heart, we are no longer restricted by space—instead, we become the space within which the world exists.

Each one of us is connected to God by a rope. Sometimes the rope breaks, and when that happens, God takes the two ends and ties them back together. The person with a broken heart is now closer to God had the rope not broken. Only a heart that has turned empty is capable of love. As the new moon follows the darkest night, moon-watching teaches us that endings are always followed by new beginnings.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free.
Blackbird fly, Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

May we be brave enough to turn our story into song, and may we do so with joy; and let us say, Amen.