Yom Kippur Sermon 5781
Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Congregation Shearith Israel
Today I thought I’d open my remarks with a few words about food. Dangerous territory in which to tread on a fast day, right? 😊 On the bright side, at least I’m confident I’ll have your, or your stomach’s, attention now. That is, until I tell you what food I wanted to talk about. You see, I wanted to talk about matzah. You heard me right, matzah. I know what you’re thinking. Rabbi, of course it makes total sense for you to talk about a food, matzah, in the midst of a fast day half a year away from Pesach. But now you must admit, you’re a little curious where I might be going with this. So let’s find out. 😉 It seems strange that the Torah and our tradition would choose such a shvach, non-descript food as the symbol of one of the most iconic and formative moments in our people’s history, our miraculous deliverance from slavery through God’s metaphorical hands. Why not a symbol that represented power or perhaps at least greater flair? Somehow it’s a simple unleavened bread, referred to as lechem oni, typically translated as “bread of affliction”, that is the calling card for our people as we became a free nation. How does that have anything to do with the process of redemption? The Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Betzalel, a 16th and 17th century sage also known for his legendary associations with the Golem, offers an answer in his work Gevurot Hashem. He explains that matzah is called lechem oni because it is the opposite of enriched, or egg, matzah with its added oils or honey, since the oni, meaning “poor person” in Hebrew, has no money; he has only himself. Instead of framing matzah as the “bread of affliction”, the Maharal looks at it as essentially “simple bread”, with no additives or sweeteners, just flour and water, which is a perfect symbol for the “oni”, the poor person who has nothing except for the absolute basics. The Maharal’s take is that the poor person, while not being in a great position financially, is essentially unshackled from the physical world, unburdened from it, and thus MORE free than someone who has a great many possessions and a standard of living to maintain. It’s a representation of autonomy that, while coming with its own challenges, is quite different than the slave, in Egypt or anywhere, who is beholden to his or her master’s bidding. So the Maharal teaches that we are commanded to eat this simple, poor bread on the original night of the Exodus and every Pesach since. Neither the matzah, nor we as the people Israel and as individual Jews, are weighed down on the night of our redemption by any extra ingredients—save for maybe the debatably worth it pareve flourless cake, sorry, couldn’t resist 😊—it’s just us, and God, together, existing outside of the bonds and burdens of slavery. A simple but fulfilling life.
Well, a quick flip through the rest of the Torah after the Exodus, in particular the book of Numbers, suggests that the relationship between Israel and God was, well, COMPLICATED. Challenges, baggage and distractions seeped into the mix, and the relationship got a lot harder. LIFE got a lot harder, which seems only natural when you’re wandering in a wilderness for a long period of time. And this led to questionable choices and prioritizations on the part of the Israelites. And yet God pines, if you will, for a return to that simple, original and pure state of the relationship, as the words of Jeremiah 31:20, which we heard last week during the Zichronot section of Musaf, attest: “Ha-ven yakir li, Ephraim, truly Ephraim is a dear son to Me, im yeled sha’ashu’im, a child that is dandled, ki midei dabri bo, zachor ezk’reinu od, whenever I have turned against him, My thoughts would dwell on him still; al ken hamu me’ai lo, that is why My heart yearns for him, rachem arachameinu, n’um Adonai, I will receive him back in love, declares Adonai”. We may have strayed from who we were as simple, free Israelites just out of Egypt, but there’s always a pathway back to that special snapshot in time and that treasured relationship with God. And, time and time again, the Israelites end up getting a wake-up call to this reality, either by hearing it from one of the prophets, or by dealing with an external crises that highlights the importance of a reboot and a return to the simplicity of their core relationship with God.
In a number of ways the experience we’ve been going through as individuals, as families, as a community, and as a society over these last six months is quite similar to what our biblical ancestors went through. An external crisis, a pandemic, has gotten our attention, dramatically altered our way of life, and shaken us to our core. As businesses of all kinds and all around us—restaurants, retail shops, movie theaters and others—have been forced to close or re-organize and re-prioritize to find ways to be profitable in the COVID era and its aftermath, and we have been largely isolating ourselves in our homes, the theme of change management looms large in our lives. The world has gotten even more complicated around us—how have we adapted and responded to that change?
One of the most common answers I’ve been seeing and hearing to this question in our community and in society in general is that we’ve been forced to simplify things. To go back to the basics. A number of you have specifically shared with me in these recent months how profound this change has been for you, and how grateful you are that you have been forced to re-examine your life choices and priorities and embrace a simpler life. Cooking together and enjoying daily meals as couples or families at the kitchen table, or socially distanced in the backyard with other extended family members and friends. Walking, hiking, running, or biking to be out in nature and get exercise and take care of our bodies. Playing games. Reading books and taking online classes. More frequent calls or FaceTimes or Zooms with your friends and loved ones, even folks you hadn’t been in touch with in a long time. Seeking community and connection with the shul and with God. In a real sense, what we are taught in the opening words of the biblical scroll of Ecclesiastes seems to ring true now more than ever: “Havel havalim, ha-kol havel”, vanity of vanities, everything is utterly futile—framed dramatically for rhetorical flourish, yes, but meaning that most everything we have in life is extra “stuff”, and is never meant to last. What is not havel, futile or vain, are these basic core building blocks of our lives. Those are meant to last and remain constant if we only choose to prioritize and nurture them.
19th century American author Henry David Thoreau looks to have been cut from the same philosophical cloth as Ecclesiastes. Unlike Ecclesiastes, though, whose reflections seem to have emerged from living in the metaphorical “fast lane” of the societal highway, Thoreau’s desire to understand and examine the worth and meaning of life, and to strip it down to its most basic elements, led him to live in isolation for two years in a small house on the shores of Walden Pond. Reflecting in his work Walden on the reasons for having made this decision, Thoreau wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion”. And Thoreau added: “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind”. Whether we frame it through the experiences and reflections of Ecclesiastes or Thoreau, or through the lens of our own recent life experiences, perhaps at this moment in our lives we can realize that we may have been spending too much time and energy on non-essential things. Thoreau advises us in Walden, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand”. The essence of his, and Ecclesiastes’, message, is clear: cut out what’s unnecessary and focus on what’s important.
And this return to basic values and priorities, my friends, is actually the essence of teshuva, the process of “returning” to ourselves, to our community, and God with which we are tasked during these Yamim Noraim, these High Holy Days. When a properly run organization is going through a process of change management and strategic planning, as we did here at Shearith two years ago, it starts with identifying its mission, vision and values to make sure it is focusing on its core essence, BEFORE moving forward and figuring out what kind of change is necessary. So, too, with each of us as individuals. We can’t begin the process of successful change until we strip ourselves down to our core essence and then see what’s been getting in the way of us being our best selves. We can then cut those obstacles or distractions out and focus on what’s most important.
At the end of the biblical scroll of Lamentations, we read a phrase that is likely more familiar to many of us from the conclusion of the Torah service when we return the Torah to the ark. “Hashiveinu Hashem eylekha v’nashuva, chadesh yameinu k’kedem”, “Bring us back to you, O God, and we shall return, renew our days as they were before”. When we think of renewal, we might first make the mistake of getting bogged down in the root “new” and understand it as something emerging from scratch. But here are some definitions of renewal: an instance of resuming an activity or state after an interruption; repairing something that is worn out, run-down, or broken; the act of being made fresh or vigorous again.
And so our scripture reminds us that renewal and change actually starts with a return to where, and WHO, we were, back when we were at our best, and picking back up from where we left off then. When our hearts were focused on the right things. When we channeled more of our time into pursuing and committing to those relationships that mattered. As with our Israelite ancestors, life got complicated, and some of these basic priorities got away from us and became worn down or broken. But these last six months we’ve been challenged to figure out how we’re going to make it through the wilderness of COVID and emerge stronger from it. We have been forced to simplify, to get back to being like the matzah, the no-frills symbol of our people when we first got our start in relationship with God once Egypt’s oppression was stripped away.
How do our best selves and lives look? When we are deeply connected in relationships, in person or virtually, with family, friends, and community who are the strongest anchors in our lives; when we are focused on maintaining our health by taking precautions and exercising; when we are reading and learning and expanding our appreciation for, and understanding of, our world in general and also of our Jewish tradition specifically, and thinking about how we can contribute to the world and to the continuing chain of Jewish generations; and when we are cultivating our faith in, and commitment to, God who can also be a rock for us even in the most turbulent of times. This is what our best selves look like, and what teshuva looks like, this year and every year. And so we pray together with the familiar words: Hashiveinu Hashem eylekha v’nashuva, chadesh yameinu k’kedem. Bring us back to you, God, and we shall return, to being our best selves and focusing on what matters. Renew our days and clear away the distractions from our souls so that we may once again be fresh and vigorous in the pursuit of meaning in our relationships and in our lives and in our commitment to you and to serving as your agents of goodness in your world. And let us all say, AMEN.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share