Tonight, I’d like to speak about relationships and specifically about healing relationships. How do we go about healing our relationships with the divine, with other people, and with our highest selves, that part of us that expects the most and best of us? Let’s begin with a story.
It was late Yom Kippur afternoon, during the Ne’ilah service, the concluding service for the day. The synagogue was filled to capacity. Everyone in the village was there, praying intently. The Baal Shem Tov stood in the front of the sanctuary before the Holy Ark with all of his attention drawn toward heaven. The members of the community believed deeply in their hearts that even if their own prayers would fall short, the intensity and devotion of the great Baal Shem Tov’s prayers would make up for their own and the whole community would be blessed. “Su Shearim!” The people shouted. “Open your gates!”
At that moment a young shepherd, an orphan, was walking by the synagogue. He had just taken the sheep from the field and put them in the pen. Now, he was walking home. His family had not been particularly religious and he was not particularly knowledgeable about Judaism, yet the boy knew that this was the holiest of days. Others had told him. He wanted to experience it all. But every year, he had to work. The sheep needed tending. One could not pray and sing praises instead of caring for them! So while others went to the synagogue, Nachum, the shepherd tended to the flock.
This day, he had finished his work before sundown and decided to come to the synagogue. He had not been to a service before. He had not even been home to change from his work clothes. The sheep might not have noticed the smell, but those in the synagogue did. As he entered their midst, eyes turned from the Holy Ark, from the Baal Shem Tov, from the pages of the Machzorim and glared at the boy who came to the holiest of services dirty and smelly.
“Su Shearim!” The Baal Shem Tov chanted, but fewer and fewer voices were joining him as more and more attention was paid to the boy and more and more people were distracted as he wandered up the aisle and SAT on the top step of the bimah looking, not at the Ark, but at the Baal Shem Tov, then out at them! Mortified rumblings were growing louder.
Then suddenly, the boy took out a wooden whistle and sounded a few notes ending with a piercing shrill! The uproar grew! The Baal Shem Tov turned his head to look at the boy as two men rushed to grab his arms to carry him bodily away. “Stop!” the rabbi cried. “Stop!” “Dear friends, you have not turned, have not performed teshuvah, yet. You are too focused on your own purposes and your own ways. We have shouted our prayers with great intention to open the gates, but this boy, not aware of what we say or do, sounded a note that woke us from our slumber, opened the gates, and went straight to heaven, taking our prayers and our hopes along with his own.”
At the end of the service, the Baal Shem Tov invited the young man to join him at his table for the Break the Fast meal, an honored guest at his right hand.
[How much more focusing of our prayers on a day when we are bid to consider our mortality and to reach forth in earnestness was it to hear the words, “Call 911,” said in earnestness and to begin our service with an emotional Mishebeirach prayer?]
While the story of the shepherd and the whistle is about the worthiness of prayers and importance of intention and earnestness, it also reminds us of the fact that our tradition believes that God does not expect us to be perfect, to know our prayers and be able to recite them well, for our prayers to be received. The prayer that reaches God is the one offered with intentionality and fervency, not necessarily the one that is worded perfectly. Neither are we expected to be perfect in order to make an offering.
One need not look very hard at our tradition to see that even our tradition’s heroes are not perfect characters. We remember the story of Moses telling God that he has a problem speaking and we think of how that affected Moses’ ability to communicate with Pharaoh. But we forget that it did not get in the way of Moses’ communication with God. Moses doubts himself. “Why choose me? Someone who is not perfect?” we can imagine him saying. But God did choose him, imperfections and all.
And let us examine our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. How about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? None of them were exceptional parents. Abraham nearly sacrifices one son and abandons the other into the wilderness. Isaac is devoted only to Esau and blind to the needs of his other son, Jacob. Jacob favors Joseph so greatly that his siblings become extraordinarily jealous and hateful.
And the matriarchs? Sarah? How did she treat Hagar and Ishmael? She wanted them to be cast away.
Rebecca? How did she treat Esau, her eldest?
Leah? How did she treat her sister, Rachel, whom she knew wanted to marry Jacob?
Rachel? How did she treat her father, leaving his home have stolen his prized possessions, the family idols?
And shall we add in the pride-filled Joseph?
King David? The list is too long. Let’s just start with Uriah the Hittite and Bathsheba.
We are spiritually descended from people who were imperfect. They harbored anger, frustration, jealousy, pride, zealotry. They playing favorites… Yet our tradition tells us that they had relationships with the divine. We are shown that we, who succumb to many of the same sins, also can have a relationship with the divine in spite of our imperfections.
However, when life challenges us, we still doubt. We ask ourselves questions much like Moses did before the burning bush.
Why me? What can I do? What more can I do?
Should I expect more of myself than I have become accustomed to accept?
Having transgressed, having sinned, having failed time and again…
Can I do it? Am I going to be able to meet the challenges that lie ahead for me?
If I stretch myself out,
If I yearn to reach out, to speak out,
If I step forward to try,
If I go before Pharaoh, me, not some mighty ruler with a great army, a mere mortal,
If I go back to the place and people from where and whom I have fled in fear,
If I am only myself as I always am, flawed and fragile, will I be good enough?
And often in Hillel’s words:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am for myself, what does that mean for me?
If not now, at this moment, at this opportunity, when?
We especially ask these questions at this time of year as we look back on decisions that we have made and consider decisions we have yet to make.
Tonight, we are reminded of the generations of Jews who faced some of the hardest of challenges, many of whom were forced to make decisions that they did not wish to make, to say, “Yes,” when they very much meant, “No.”
Our Relationship with God and Ourselves
The Kol Nidrei prayer is about healing our relationship with God when we have said or done something to upset God, but we can see the prayer as it relates to how we act toward the world and ourselves as well.
Some of us have an easier time engaging in spiritual dialogue than others. The dialogue of prayer is traditionally one of relationship between an individual and God, but it can be an internal dialogue between ourselves as we are and the selves we wish to be, our higher selves. Again, much of our dialogue today involves questions and answers.
Have we sincerely made promises that we have failed to keep? Even though we tried our best? Or did we fail to give a good effort?
Have we relapsed into behaviors that we vowed to change?
Have we been too willing to abandon our convictions to make our lives easier?
Have we kept up traditions that we have promised to keep?
Have we sought out ways to make or keep Jewish traditions and practices a part of our lives?
Have we given real thought about how we live our lives and the ways in which what we do affects others?
Do we make time for things that keep us healthy? Emotionally? Physically?
Are we treating our body well?
Do we hold ourselves to high enough standards? Too high standards?
How have we done at meeting our goals?
Are we willing to commit ourselves to do better?
Will we be able to walk through the doors of the sanctuary next year feeling good about our efforts?
Healing the relationship between ourselves and God or between our actual selves and our higher selves, that part of us that expects better of us, involves admitting fault, turning, changing our direction, and seeking forgiveness. We cannot move forward in the best way carrying the baggage of disdain. Seeking forgiveness from God or from ourselves is a good beginning step. Repentance, atonement, in this regard would involve us meeting or at least sincerely trying to meet our newly elevated goals.
Our Relationships with Other People
While we are reminded that Yom Kippur does not atone for transgressions made between people, it is a time when we focus on healing our relationships with people. Those relationships impact not only our relationship with God, according to the tradition, but they certainly impact how others view us and how we view ourselves.
That said, another story.
The rabbi was an obsessed golfer, but average at best. In his regular foursomes, he rarely finished better than the third best and most of the time took more than a few more strokes than the others. Just once, he wanted to beat them. Just once, perhaps the ball would bounce just right and he’d hit a hole-in-one like they all had.
So it happened, one Yom Kippur day that the weather was just right, the sun shining bright, the wind all but absent. It was a glorious day for golf. The rabbi retreated to his office letting people know that he wished to sleep and not be disturbed until the next service time came around. But he couldn’t sit in his office on such a glorious day. He could leave. He could sneak out. Who would disturb the rabbi on Yom Kippur? They wouldn’t know. Then he snuck out of his office and went to play nine holes at the public course. Just nine holes. He didn’t have much time, but there would be hardly anyone else on the course with the Jewish members of the community having a holiday.
He’d never birdied a hole before. Even par was a goal rarely matched. So when through the first eight holes he had four birdies and four pars, the rabbi was ecstatic!
“Just wait until the people hear about this round!” he thought proudly to himself.
Then on the par 3 ninth hole, he hit his tee-shot badly. It was heading right toward the big tree behind the green. “Oh no!” the rabbi exclaimed. Just then the ball rebounded off of the giant oak tree, flew over the sand trap next to the green, bounded onto the green, bounced twice, hit the flagpole and fell straight into the cup. The rabbi shouted in joy, “A hole-in-one! A hole-in-one! Amazing!”
Somewhere up in heaven, the angels with God asked, “O Eternal one, surely you cannot reward a rabbi for leaving the synagogue and going to play golf on the holiest day of the year!”
It is said that God simply replied, “Whom can he tell?”
The joke is a meaningful one. We are reminded that sometimes what we desire most is not the accomplishment, but being able to share it and to interact with others about it. Yes, the rabbi might feel a sense of pride in himself for having done what he did, though he might later feel more guilty about it than prideful, but not being able to share it with people with whom he deeply wished to do so would be agonizing.
The rabbi in the joke obviously has the wrong priorities. Yom Kippur is a day focused on ourselves in relationship, not merely on ourselves alone.
On Yom Kippur, just as we say that God does in relation to us, we need to consider what we’ve said and done and to look at our year’s ledger. When we find red marks, things that we would consider deficits, something we owe someone else, we should seek to remedy them.
While in the service for children, we tend to stress telling others that we’re sorry, the concept in the adult service is about reaching out and seeking forgiveness with contrition. On this day, God’s gates of repentance may be open, but human beings’ gates of accepting forgiveness require our effort to open. And once we do that, once we are able to reach out to offer forgiveness, we are required to do more than that, to atone, to make amends, to try to repair the damage.
The Day of Atonement isn’t about arguing, however. It isn’t the time to debate whether or not your apology is sincere enough or your attempts to make amends good enough. Today is a time for you to turn, to change your ways. Slichah and Teshuva are about turning instead of banging heads. To use the terminology of the day, the goal is at-one-ment, making whole. And that is done between persons by healing and embracing relationships, not by winning any argument.
While the focus for most of today is on the sinner, this day reminds us of our opportunities to offer forgiveness, to accept repentance, and atonement. There is a mutuality to this process.
We cannot go through life, as Martin Buber might have put it, seeing everyone as an “it”, something to be utilized or put to a purpose, with ourselves as calculating observers of the relationship. We must understand that the other person is a “thou”, someone like we are, and we are involved. The ways we respond to others impacts us in many ways. The simplest question in this regard is “How do we want to be treated by others when we seek forgiveness?”
I have little doubt that we would want our partner in this relationship to reach out to us, accept our apology, be swift to offer forgiveness and embrace our change rather than avoid us or push us away.
It is our obligation both to try to atone and to accept a reasonable remedy by others. After all, just as we want God to be merciful and compassionate unto us, and would like other people to act that way towards us, so we must act that way toward other people.
Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’chanun, erekh apaim v’rav chesed v’emet. Notseir chesed la-a-laphim, nosei avon va-fesha v’hata’ah v’nakei.
Adonai, Adonai, merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and truth, showing kindness to multitudes, and forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, while granting pardon.
As we ask that of God in relation to us, so we must ask that of ourselves in relation to others.
Bearing grudges and withholding forgiveness and love is what we loathe in others; let us not be guilty of those behaviors ourselves. In the coming year, may we strive to heal all of our relationships. Let us be slow to anger and swift to forgive, abounding in kindness and mercy toward one another. If we do so, we will live much happier lives and our world will be a much better place.
L’shanah Tovah tikateivu v’teichateimu.
May we all be inscribed and sealed in the book of life for a good new year.