Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline
Ken bakodesh chazitikha lir'ot uz'kha ukh'vodekha (Ps 63:3)
Tzama l'kha nafshi, kama l'kha b'sari (Ps 63:2)
"Yes, I will behold You in Your holy place. Oh, to see your might and your glory."
"Thirsty is my soul for You; yearning is my body for You."
These words are from Psalm 63 and the melody, as you probably can figure out, is Chassidic. In their original context, in the Psalm itself, the words come from the mouth of David, who has fled his enemies and found himself in the wilderness of Judah. But the mood that these words convey, particularly when set to this soulful melody, is much more mystical than practical. And while I will return to the words and the melody, they are only tangentially related to my topic today.
The last of the pillars in this sanctuary that is fully dedicated is the one closest to you on the left side of the sanctuary. Its theme is the High Holy Days, and you can see its artwork on the back cover of your reflection booklet. The words and symbols of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are on full display the shofar, the gates of repentance, the whale that swallowed Jonah, Abraham's tent and right in the middle is an open book. On the right side of that book is an excerpt from our confession of sins. On the left side of the book is the beginning of the unique prayer we recite during musaf on the three holiest days of these ten Days of Awe. It begins un'taneh tokef kedushat hayom, "we proclaim and acclaim the holiness of this day, for it is awesome and powerful." If you would like to look at it while I speak, you will find it beginning on page 536.
Last year, Barry Isaacs examined this prayer and its origins. Today, I am unconcerned about history, except for very recent history the history of the people in front of me. Because after we have proclaimed and acclaimed the holiness of this day, the day God sits on the throne of justice and truth, after we have presented the images of the great shofar and the still-small voice, the sheep and the shepherd and the personal review by God, after all of that, we come to a paragraph whose refrain we love to sing with our Hazzan: b'rosh Hashanah yikateivun, uv'yom tzom kippur yeichateimun, "on Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed," written and sealed in that open book that holds the decree of our disposition. Who shall live and who shall die. Who shall live the limit of his days and who shall not live the limit of his days. Who shall rest and who shall wander. Who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented.
I look out over this sea of faces and I wonder why it is that when we reach this moment in the service the sanctuary is filled with the sweet sounds of your voices. The beauty of the harmony is exquisite. Were a stranger to walk into this room with no idea of context, she would most certainly conclude that a thousand people are blessed and faithful, confident that their names are among those who shall live, those who live the limits of their days, those who shall rest and those who shall be at peace.
But I know better. I know the experiences of life that precede you to this sanctuary today for the declaration your contrition to God. I know the empty seats that once held your loved ones, the aluminum frames that you need to walk, the chemicals that saturate your cells. I know the frustration you have as you try to formulate a once-familiar thought. I know the worries that visit you in the darkness of night about your babies and your teenagers and your spouses and your parents, about the mortgage and the pension and tuition and the medical bills.
It is nothing short of a miracle that when the sweet refrain of this affirmation begins from the mouth of our Hazzan, you do not storm the bima, pelt us with your prayerbooks and shout in righteous indignation at the insult we have hurled in your faces.
My God, the pillar on which this prayer is displayed is dedicated in memory of a seventeen year old boy and his grandfather, killed on the way home from a college visit, and of his grandmother whose heart was broken beyond repair by the double loss. How do we dare sing in the presence of Julia Pitkin-Shantz about the justice of the day, when it testifies to the collapse of her world?
It is dangerous for me to ask questions like these in a sermon, because it is not enough to declare the challenge. I have to attempt to respond. But I must tell you that I have only one answer to offer, and it is the one that I have claimed for myself. I cannot promise you that my own meager reflections will satisfy you. I do hope, however, that they will mollify you enough that Elisheva and I will remain safe on this bima during the repetition of the Amidah.
I get asked a lot about death, and particularly about life after death. Most recently, in the last couple of weeks, the question came once from a friend of mine much younger and a second time from a friend much older. I have no expertise in the matter, but I do have a deep belief that life is not random. That is to say that life is as permanent as matter and energy, especially since it includes some of each. The life (which the Psalmist called nefesh, nafshi) that animates our flesh (which the Psalmist called basar, b'sari) is much a part of the cosmos as the dust of the earth from which we were formed. If our flesh returns to the dust, then our life returns to its origins as well. Thirsty, thirsty is my soul for You; yearning, yearning is my flesh for You.
When we die, I believe, the small measure of life that has sustained our small measure of flesh is reunited with its source. The body, which has experienced this world through its senses, takes those disabled senses with it to the grave. The life call it the soul, if you wish no longer experiences the world of its existence through the senses.
Does it take with it consciousness? Is the soul aware of who it is or was or might yet be? I have no idea. Is this life force separate, an independent flame that continues to flicker in an eternal darkness? I haven't a clue. I am confident of only one thing: that life, once it is no longer contained in a body of flesh and blood, no longer engages existence through a body of flesh and blood. And while a flesh and blood body allows life to experience the physical world, it prevents life from the experience of a world that is not physical. Life, liberated from flesh, is as different in its liberation as is flesh liberated from life.
That's the limit of my faith in life after death. And while I think about it a lot, particularly when I sit with a young man struggling with a recent loss or an older man struggling with a pending loss, I have complete confidence that I have reached or exceeded the maximum anyone can claim with confidence that is not mostly wishful thinking.
Today, this holy day that draws us together, is our collective attempt to understand that world to come. Today, this holy day that draws us together, is our collective attempt to experience the eternal nature of the life force within us and the source from which it flows. Today, this holy day that draws us together, is our living metaphor for what we cannot truly understand.
And at its very core is this endearing, enraging, inspiring, infuriating prayer that takes us from the physical certainty of Rosh HaShanah and delivers us to the untethered uncertainty of Yom Kippur.
Prof. Moshe Benovitz teaches at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. He has termed this day, Yom Kippur, the Day of No Justice. Rosh HaShanah, he teaches, is Yom haDin, the Day of Justice that is proclaimed and acclaimed at the beginning of un'taneh tokef. On that day, God sits on the throne of justice, of judgment, of structure and renews the dependable and desirable structure of the physical world in which we spend all but one day of the year. The seven days of creation occur in the physical world. The giving of the Torah occurs in the physical world. The passage of time, the dietary laws, the laws of family purity, the statutory sacrifices, the events of history all occur in the physical world. Joy and gladness, friendship and intimacy, sickness and suffering, death in its time and death not in its time these are the things that occur in our physical world, in the world we experience with our physical bodies.
In that world of God's creation, there is no choice but to judge. The largest decisions we make with intention and the smallest decisions we make without thinking have logical and unavoidable consequences. Toss a rock into a pond and it will cause a predictable disturbance in the water. Watch a dragonfly kiss the surface of that pond and the disturbance causes a chain reaction only the trained eye can begin to understand.
On Rosh HaShanah the great shofar sounds, the still-small voice is heard. We line up in order, like sheep, and go through the list of our deeds, recorded by our own hands in the book of records. Everything counts. In a world of structure, of law and judgment, of physics and chemistry and biology, there are no exceptions to the rule, or the structure does not hold. Human judges and juries make human decisions that trigger their own consequences. Friends and strangers kiss the surface of the pond and the inevitable chain reaction begins. On the day the physical world is renewed, it is written: who shall live and who shall die.
But Yom Kippur, teaches Prof. Benovitz, is the day when structure dissolves. On Rosh HaShanah it is written, who shall live and who shall die. Why do we need Yom Kippur to seal the verdict? If there is justice in the world and the judgment is just, then what do we ask of our Judge? That justice be overturned? That our sentence be reevaluated? That new evidence be considered? Better we ask to restore the fallen building so we can add additional support, start the hurricane all over again so we can shore up the levies, put the milk back into the cup so we can redirect a gesture.
The week of ordinary time between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is the time we have to live in the renewed world of creation. Yom Kippur is the day that reminds us that when the world ends, the structure of the physical world dissolves. The seal of Yom Kippur is the one that closes the book of judgment and takes us beyond.
T'shuvah, t'fillah, tzedakah returning, praying, giving away maavirin et ro'a hag'zeirah transcend the terrible decree. These three acts of relinquishing our attachment to the physical world allow us a taste of the world to come. We deny our physical selves food and affection, comfort and satisfaction. We acknowledge the shortcomings that make our happy lives a misery. Our souls thirst, but we do not quench that thirst. Our bodies yearn, but we do not consummate that yearning. Stripped of the activities that speak for our time on a daily basis, we return to the knowledge that something intangible and unmeasurable something spiritual and eternal kisses the surface of our existence and ripples through our physical world.
As un'taneh tokef reminds us, our origin is dust and our end is dust. We are broken shards, dried grass, withered flowers, evaporating clouds, fleeting breezes, dreams upon waking. The pot held water in its time, the flower brightened the world, the dream inspired. Did they never really exist? Are they without worth now that their physical function has come to an end?
No, my friends. Life is sovereign and eternal. The prayer puts it this way: God is sovereign, alive and dependable. And when this physical world we inhabit has crumbled to dust, when the structure dissolves and there is neither Torah nor time, when the pot has shattered, the breeze has flown, the dream has dissipated, life takes us back into its embrace. Death is the beginning of reunion.
Let me put it into religious language for you:
__On Rosh HaShanah, God is our judge.
__On Yom Kippur, God is our lover.
Most every day, the greatest heresy a Jew can utter is "leit din v'leit dayan," "there is no justice and there is no Judge." To deny the dependability of the world and the dependable nature of its Creator is to abandon a sense of meaning in our existence. But on this one day of the year, on the day we best approximate our eventual escape from this physical world, on the day we deal with the inevitability of who shall live and who shall die, leit din v'leit dayan is a victory cry. When this world of inevitable consequence is behind us, God will not be Judge. God will eternally be Lover. God will embrace the essence of our lives when the grass has dried and the flower has faded. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, life to life.
Today does not feel like a taste of paradise. It is the rare individual who can transcend the discomfort of the day we afflict our bodies and souls and find hope in physical oblivion. We enter this day of no justice with trepidation and dismay, the same way we will eventually enter the realm of death. But when the sun sets this evening on our annual excursion to the other side, almost to a person we will emerge again to the life we have known. We will emerge to a place we can thirst and yearn for life eternal in the holy place of strength and glory.
Ken bakodesh chazitikha lir'ot uz'kha ukh'vodekha
Tzama l'kha nafshi, kama l'kha b'sari
"Yes, I will behold You in Your holy place. Oh, to see your might and your glory"
"Thirsty, thirsty is my soul for You; yearning, yearning is my body for You."
In the end, we will each and all arrive in that place. The people we cherished, the ones who fell victim to floods and earthquakes and cancers and cars have already arrived. Will you see them there? You will not your eyes will not accompany you. Will you know them there? I cannot tell you. Will you join with them there? Of that I am certain.
The pillar that represents these holy days is hollow. A steel beam in the middle holds up our roof. The thick overlay is a faηade to which we have ascribed function and on which we have inscribed meaning. What really holds us up is what is unseen deep inside. It represents that holy place of strength and glory. Thirsty is mysoul. Yearning is my body. Certain is my faith.
Ken bakodesh chazitikha lir'ot uz'kha ukh'vodekha
Tzama l'kha nafshi, kama l'kha b'sari