Yom Kippur Sermon 5781
Rabbis Adam Roffman and Shira Wallach
With gratitude for the inspiration of our teacher and friend, Dr. Arnold Eisen
Adam: The Friday night before our wedding, Shira berated our guests because they couldn’t count to 6.
We had gathered everyone together for an intimate shabbaton at a retreat center outside Baltimore and, after shabbat dinner, we had an oneg. Some dessert, some wine, an essential ingredient in this story, and, most importantly for us, some singing.
A half empty bottle of Moscato in her hand, Shira, who cannot hold her liquor, had the brilliant idea that she would teach a complicated three-part round to our assembled guests.
We love our friends very much, but let’s be honest: they weren’t exactly up to our high musical standards. And so, a minute or two into the singing, Shira yelled: “STOP! It’s in 6/8 people!”
In other words: in order not to get lost, you had to count off musical patterns in two groups of three. Which, needless to say, for a well-intentioned group of middling musical talent, resulted in chaos.
Shira: It’s been a challenge for us, over these past few months, listening to the broken rhythms of our time. We’re reminded of this every time we hold services on Zoom, a virtual platform on which it is technologically impossible for people, sitting in their own homes, to speak or sing in unison. For the leader of the Mourner’s Kaddish, the experience is even more disorienting. You begin, and then the sound of everyone else returns to you seconds later.
For those like Adam and me, who can be particular about how things sound, it’s been like nails on a chalkboard. How are we to make sense of this cacophony, this overlapping jumble of words, when we are supposed to be praying to God and comforting mourners?
This experience of saying kaddish is yet another example, of many, of why we are living in a time that has no rhyme or rhythm. It is impossible to predict what will happen and when, impossible to know what to do or how to respond, or if, when we do, it will have any impact at all on the myriad of crises unfolding around us. Put simply, right now, the world makes no sense.
Adam: It makes no sense that, in the most advanced age of medicine ever, over 200,000 of our fellow countrymen and women have died in a pandemic that has ravaged the world.
It makes no sense that, in the streets of our cities and towns, people are turning on one another, fighting and screaming and shouting, looting and burning, each side claiming the moral high ground.
It makes no sense that people are forced to choose between their health and their livelihood, between keeping their children at home or sending them to school, when both seem like a losing proposition.
It makes no sense that after nearly 250 years of progress, Americans are at war with each other about the very systems we have created to maintain unity and order.
As people of faith, it is tempting to believe that there is a relatively simple answer to why terrible things happen in the world. You are either with God or you are not. You are either pious and observant, or you are godless and pagan.
A system of reward and punishment has been outlined in some of our religious texts to lift up those who follow God’s instructions and put out those who don’t. But look a little more closely, and you’ll see that this system unravels very quickly.
Shira: In the book of Job, we read of a man who was one of God’s most devoted followers. And yet, for the sake of a devil, his home is destroyed, his body is wracked with illness, and his family killed. Job demands to know why he has been treated so unfairly. Three men, seeing Job in his wretchedness, come to confront him for railing against God. If you are suffering, his companions tell him, it is because of some fault in you, something you have yet to uncover and to confess.
One of the men, Eliphaz, insists: im tashuv el Shaddai tipaneh. If you do teshuvah, if you return to God, you will be restored (Job 22:23). When you pray, God will listen to you. If only you make good on your promises, God will deliver the guilty and be absolved in your eyes, through the cleanness of your hands.
We are here today, partially, because of these words. Because we believe that if we repent, God will reward us with another year of life. And yet, we all know if the answer were truly as simple as that, many others would be standing here with us on this day with full faith that they too would make it through to another year.
Job speaks for our sense of betrayal at the thought that, if we do everything right, the pieces will fall into place around us and the world will once again make sense. “Until the last moment I die, I have and will maintain my integrity, for I know that I am righteous, and will not yield” he says (Job 27:5). Maintaining his innocence, Job is eventually met with a voice from heaven, explaining away his suffering as a consequence of God’s mysterious ways. “Where were you when I created the universe?” God challenges him.
Adam: Ultimately, Job is rewarded for finally praising God, even in the midst of tragedy. His body is healed, his house is rebuilt, his family is reborn. But make no mistake, this too makes no sense.
Most scholars believe that these last chapters of Job were editorial additions, meant to blunt the harsh argument and the charges against God enumerated in the previous chapters.
Accept that we will never understand. Is that really the answer? What comfort can that provide us in these times? And is this really a story that ends with happily ever after? As if the new wife and children Job were given could really take the place of those he lost?
And while there can be no true answer to Job’s challenge, what we can learn from his story is that those who seek a black and white explanation of why things go so terribly wrong will be disappointed and their faith will be broken.
The truth is: Judaism offers not just a different answer, but a different question. When we assume that the world is supposed to add up; when we insist that it must make sense, we are not making a truly religious claim. From the start, the Torah teaches us that we begin not with order, but with chaos. For it is out of chaos that God created the world.
And so the question is not: how do we get the world to make sense? It is: what do we do when it doesn’t?
Shira: There is another biblical figure who lost everything, who was forced to confront a world of pain and loss, robbed of those who gave her life meaning and direction. Her name was Naomi.
After the death of her husband and sons, she tells those who come to comfort her: “do not call me Naomi, call me Mara. Call me bitter, for Shaddai has made my lot miserable. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:20-21). Calling God by the same name, Shaddai, her language is an exact parallel of Job’s, who also describes his soul as bitter (Job 10:1). And yet, the story of the rest of her life is nothing like his.
Why? Because in the face of his pain, those who gathered around him insisted that he was suffering because the world is ordered. The righteous get rewarded and the wicked get punished.
Where Job’s advisers offer him only cold and calculating logic, Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth offers her something else, something that is much more reflective of the true nature of our tradition and the instructions we receive in the Torah. What is that gift? Chesed. Love. Understanding. Compassion.
Where you go, I will go. Your people will be my people. We usually read this as a statement of faith in God. It’s not. It’s a statement of faith in goodness, in kindness, in how God wants us to act in this world.
What follows in the Book of Ruth is a progression of kindness. Ruth shows chesed to Naomi and in turn, her future husband Boaz pays it forward to Ruth.
Adam: For many hundreds of years, our religion has been accused of being one primarily concerned with only the minutiae of law. What is the right way to tie your tzitzit? Which direction should the mezuzah on your door face? What are the dos and don’ts of Shabbat?
This reductive and infantile description of our 4000-year-old tradition misses the point. Despite the fact that other religions have laid claim to it, in its essential character, Judaism is and has always been a religion of chesed, of faith with love at its heart. And when it comes to being a religion of law—guilty as charged. Because in the Torah, law is love.
Law is veahavta et Adonai elohecha. Your relationship with God should be a loving meeting of souls.
Law is veahavta lereacha kamocha. Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.
Law is veahavta et hager. Show mercy, show compassion, to the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the vulnerable.
But it’s more than just acting with love, it is also learning to reorient oneself, to recalibrate the way we take in the world, so that even at its worst, we see it with love.
We are commanded to put fringes on the corners of our garments because God wants to remind us that the power of mitzvah, the potential of sanctifying the world, exists in every moment and every place that we go.
We are obligated to point the mezuzah toward the inside of our homes because, when we enter that space, the space where we nurture and foster the most important relationships we have, we must be ever-conscious of this obligation to be loving and patient.
If we care so much about the behaviors we engage in on Shabbat, it’s because God insists that we be granted one day in every seven to imagine what the world could be, instead of dwelling on what it is.
Shira: On this day of vidui, of confession, let us confess something to you. For the past several years, as we have watched the world spin faster and faster off its axis, we have approached the high holidays with greater urgency, believing that if we just delivered the right message, if we were persuasive and optimistic enough, the words that we uttered might make some small difference in helping to push the world back toward order and civility. And though there may come a time again when that might be possible, we’re not sure that, this year, that is the case.
We cannot promise you that the world will make more sense this year than it did last year.
But what we can promise you, is that because you are Jewish, because you are invested in the mission of our people, to bring chesed into the world, you can make it through these challenging times. With the love that resides within you and the wisdom of our tradition, you can work to banish tohu va’vohu, chaos and upheaval, and usher in, little by little, a new era of tzedek and mishpat, justice through laws of compassion.
Because Jewish history lives within us, we are experts at enduring the world at its worst, while also insisting that it be at its best. Job teaches us: it is not our project to unravel the mysteries of good and evil, and how and why and when manifestations of both occur in our lives.
Rather, it is our purpose to accept the chaos around us as the way of the world, and to go to work, soul by soul, on comforting and lifting up those who are facing it.
Adam: Put another way, the act of God is not the virus, the violence, or the anger and resentment that poisons so much in this world. The act of God is when those who are inspired by God’s Torah open their hands and hearts to those who are in need of its redemptive message.
Just as Ruth did, we must say to those around us: your pain is my pain, your fight is my fight. Your story is my story and your healing is my healing.
On Tuesday morning, at 7am, we’ll leave behind this beautifully designed, technologically advanced portal, and re-enter the humble and generally uncooperative virtual environment of Zoom.
We’ll go back to saying the Mourners’ Kaddish with voices that overlap and overwhelm.
But here’s the thing: you can make the same choice that we have learned to make. In that chaotic chorus of voices, words of praise about God and the world God created, you can choose to hear not disjointedness and disconnection, but the opposite.
Voices filled with love and reverence, with longing and hope, reaching out across the geographies of physical and virtual space.
You can reorient yourself to a world that seems to be a total mess, and yet, if you listen hard enough to the beating heart within you, and at the center of our faith, you can transform both your perception of the world and free yourself of the malaise that has weighed us all down for far too long.
Shira: And you will come to understand, just as we have, that what you’re listening to is not out of rhythm at all, but a sound perfectly calibrated for this moment. And then, you can leave your home, and go out into this chaotic time that we all live in and see not brokenness, but opportunities to make the world whole.
Adam and Shira: [overlapping] Yitkadal veyitkadash sheme raba. Oseh shalom b’imromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu. May the one who brings peace above, bring peace to us, to all of Israel, to all those who dwell on earth.
[in unison] Ve’imru: Amen.
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